What has changed in publishing over the last decade? How can a reputable author services company help you achieve your publishing goals? In this interview with John Bond from White Fox, we discuss aspects of the publishing journey.
If you are considering working with an author services company or publishing partner, check whether they are a Partner Member of the Alliance of Independent Authors and whether the ALLi Watchdog service rates them well. You can also check for scams and bad companies at Writer Beware.
John Bond is the CEO of White Fox, a premium publishing and book marketing partner for industry leaders, writers, and brands based in the UK and U.S.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- What’s changed in the decade since John started White Fox
- How the pandemic has accelerated changes in publishing
- How attitudes toward independent creatives have changed in the last decade
- Crowdfunding for special limited edition book projects
- How to find a quality publishing partner and avoid getting scammed
Transcript of interview with John Bond
Joanna Penn: John Bond is the CEO of whitefox, a premium publishing and book marketing partner for industry leaders, writers, and brands based in the UK and U.S. Welcome, John.
John Bond: Hello, Joanna, how are you?
Joanna Penn: I'm excited to talk to you today. So let's start.
Tell us a bit more about you and your publishing journey.
John Bond: I started, I guess in a bookshop. That was the beginning, a bookshop in North London. I ended up applying for and getting a job as you did in those days as a marketing manager at Penguin, as it was then, now Penguin Random House, in the early 1990s.
I had three interviews for that job. The last one of which was two questions. What are you reading? And do you play golf? So I think that probably says more about that period of publishing.
Joanna Penn: Publishing history, indeed!
John Bond: I ended up being marketing director there and then I went to HarperCollins in the UK and ran sales and marketing there. I ended up running their literary fiction and non-fiction division, including Fourth Estate.
I left HarperCollins in the UK in 2011 and set up White Fox early in 2012 with one of my colleagues from HarperCollins, Annabel Wright. We started working in a cafe in East London with two laptops and trying to organize a diaspora of freelancers around the world. That was the beginning.
Joanna Penn: Obviously, a lot has changed since 2012. That actually seems pretty prescient when you started because it really was the beginning of a lot of technological changes that enabled digital publishing.
What are the major changes that you've seen in the industry since you started almost a decade ago? And what might've accelerated in the last 18 months due to the pandemic?
John Bond: I think that's exactly right. I think everything that was changing has just sped up in the last 18 months. We definitely, started really primarily providing project management services for traditional publishers.
What's happened is we've gradually developed much more of a business working with individuals and companies and brands who want to do their own thing. They want to have more creative control over their publishing. They want to make something happen in 3 to 6 months rather than a year to 18 months.
All those things have really accelerated during the pandemic; the migration to online sales versus bricks and mortar retailers, people really wanting to understand what moves the dial on marketing that they can do themselves.
And the pandemic we found, at a time when so much was out of people's control in terms of their life, writing something, publishing something, starting something, finishing something, finding readers was something that people could do.
And we could work remotely with those people. We weren't in an office, we were all in our homes. And seeing people developing their writing and their businesses around their writing was amazing and inspiring, actually.
Joanna Penn: You mentioned the diaspora of freelancers and I wondered, you mentioned Penguin before PRH, you mentioned HarperCollins, obviously, there's the Simon & Schuster acquisition which is happening.
Have you seen a lot more freelancers coming out of traditional publishing and moving into servicing the independent community?
John Bond: Yes. And I think that's also happened in the last 18 months. People who have decided that they quite like their lifestyle, a portfolio lifestyle at home working with people like us who can represent a pipeline of work, but that work actually ends up being quite varied.
I think for many people, it's more interesting. And I think there's a particular journey you go on within a publishing house and you can often meet a kind of dead-end or a point where you just think, ‘I can't really progress any further,' or, ‘I don't want to progress any further.'
The people that we work with, that we love working with, I think, love the variety and the fact that there's all sorts of different kind of things coming across their desk, as opposed to, ‘I am an expert in this particular niche, and this is all I can do.'
If I'm a cover designer, I can only do crime thriller or I can only do cookery or whatever. So, I think we've definitely seen more people choosing to work as a freelancer, work from home wherever they are in the world, and we love that.
And there are plenty of ways of finding freelancers, but we also like to think that we're testing those freelancers editorially. Just because someone says they've worked somewhere doesn't mean anything particularly, but make sure that those people are as good as they say they are, and also developing a relationship with them so that they can be introduced to projects that they would not normally see through a traditional publishing house. So yeah, we've loved doing that.
Joanna Penn: I think that's really interesting and we've certainly seen a lot more freelancers coming in into the indie community. And I wondered about the attitude of people within traditional publishing. Obviously, you know many people within traditional publishing and you've been in the industry so long.
Do you think the attitude to independent creatives has changed since 2012?
John Bond: Frankly, there was some retraining involved and some recalibrating of brains that are used to thinking there is only one route to market for certain sorts of books. And that is an agent sells a book to a publisher, a publisher convinces an internal team that this author should be worthy of an advance.
What's been utterly liberating and wonderful is seeing that model completely turned on its head. We're increasingly working with people who could find traditional publishers, do have an agent, or used to have an agent and are choosing to go their own way and do it for themselves because they want to be in creative control. They want to be in control of the schedule.
They want to have their own brief based on the book that they've spent years writing for the cover, and that cover not to be decided by someone in-house in sales, who hasn't read the book, but who's thinking about a supermarket or something. So, I think definitely.
And the quality of so much that we're seeing is amazing. And I think it's definitely been the case that quite a lot of editors and designers have come to those projects potentially with some kind of residual prejudice from their time in-house, and they've had their socks knocked off by the quality of it.
Joanna Penn: That is really good to hear, and I think I've seen that because I moved back to the UK in 2011. I might even have met you around then.
John Bond: You did.
Joanna Penn: FutureBook or something like that. I've definitely seen things change a lot.
Let's give some tips because you've helped and worked with a lot of authors over the years to successfully publish and sell books.
What are some tips for authors that you've seen work if they want to be successful?
John Bond: You will know as well as I do, embrace the process, be authentic, love social media if you can, but if you hate it, don't worry. What's the point? Because people will know that. And it's a marathon, it's not a sprint.
Think about publishing your book as if you're starting a small business, what works and what doesn't for your genre of book?
Always, always, always make your book as good as it can possibly be, but also don't forget it will never be perfect. So let go of it at some point, you know, and manage your expectations.
It's hard, but learn through every iteration, every publication, every release, every launch. You know yourself, Joanna, how important has become the pre-publication process, laying the groundwork, making sure that people are aware of the particular date.
It used to be that it was all about the launch, but now it's so much about the run-up the launch to make sure that everything is set up as it possibly can be for potential awareness and discoverability, and success.
Joanna Penn: I love what you said at first there, which is to embrace the process. It's so interesting to hear you say that because, obviously, I feel like books are a project. They are a project approach.
I used to work in consulting, and everything was a project. And so there's this cycle, and the cycle happens every single time. It has to happen in the same kind of way. And yet the reason we're still in publishing is that every project is different and every book is different. And yet the process is really the same. Isn't it? Is that what you mean by that?
John Bond: It is, but I think if you're doing it yourself and you're launching your own project onto the world, and you've not done it before, I think it's hard now to say, ‘Well, look, I've done the writing. That's the hard bit. Now, it's over to whatever's going to happen and I can't influence that.'
I think if you are going to publish the book yourself, you should embrace that process.
The process from the beginning of the book to whatever marketing, whatever attempts you have at distribution and selling and publicizing the book. So that's what I mean.
And for us, everything is bespoke. We are not a publisher with a publishing schedule. Every single book we work on, we don't own rights, it's the IP of whoever it is we're working with. And so, even though the processes are so similar, everything does feel as if it is a bespoke, one-off thing.
Joanna Penn: I feel that with every book it's like, okay, I know how the process works, but it's different again for every single thing. But it's interesting when you say that, obviously, you're not a traditional publisher and the IP remains with the author and everything.
What does White Fox offer for authors and how are you different to a traditional publisher?
John Bond: We try to keep things as transparent as possible. We're committed to as good, if not better quality, than any traditional publisher can bring. We facilitate the process and hold the hand of every single person that we work with. And there's a lot of work done at the beginning of the process to make sure there's absolute clarity as to what is going to happen.
There's that Mike Shatzkin phrase of “unbundling publishing” and what we see as doing. There is this single work of publishing, it relates to a multitude of processes and it's complex. And we like to feel that we're helping somebody by guiding them through it and holding their hand through the whole thing.
We've had a number of writers who've made a success of their publishing via us who then gone on to find a traditional publishing deal because that's what they want to do. And we say best of luck with that. We're very happy if that's what they want.
If you look on our website, you will see there's more non-fiction than there is fiction, but we love working with people who have a fiction platform as well.
What we're trying to do is to really give everybody the success that they want, their version of success that they want for their book, whichever that may be, if that doesn't sound a bit hokey.
Joanna Penn: Just to be specific, what actual parts of the process can you help people with?
John Bond: Everything. We usually work with somebody when they come to us with a manuscript, which may or may not have had any editing whatsoever. And then we map out a publishing plan, which goes from that manuscript through to a publication sales, marketing, distribution end of it.
We're a partner with Ingram globally. If we want to make something available as POD, we can do that. If we want help with marketing publicity, we can do everything that a publisher can do, except we're an agency.
And if we're selling the book, we don't have 50 reps, obviously. We utilize the network that we've got and the people that we have within our database. We give people what we hope is the service that is relevant for their particular publication.
Joanna Penn: Many authors obviously want to see their books in physical bookstores. So what are the key elements around that? And what do you do in terms of print runs or help people with?
Print-on-demand is obviously one thing, but print runs and bookstore distribution is something that many authors are interested in.
John Bond: To be honest, we're quite cautious about that. The days of thinking that you have to block out the light sales front-of-store in Barnes & Noble or Waterstones or wherever are gone.
Seventy percent or so of sales have migrated to being online. That's not just Amazon. There are plenty of other places to buy books online, but clearly, the acceleration of ebooks and audio and POD is a very liberating thing.
And we always say to people, ‘There's no point lending your books to bookshops.' Inventory, wherever you have it, is an expensive thing. We love working with authors where there is the joy of reprinting because it means that it's working.
I'm talking about a lot of managing expectations in this interview, but it seems to me that's a big part of it to be realistic about what aspirations can be done in terms of brick and mortar retailers.
For example, we're very, very encouraging to people who want to work with local bookshops, wherever they are, because that's great for them and their community and that book and also a launch or whatever it is that they want to do.
But trying to get people to think that online is a good way of starting as well. And it doesn't mean that just if your book is available initially only online, that it can't ultimately be made available in bookstores. We're trying to tell people that it's no longer the case, the coverage in bookshops.
Also, bookshops won't take your book unless they think somebody is going to come in and buy it. So you need to convince them at head office level that the marketing and PR you're doing wherever you are in the world is strong enough and real and going to persuade people to come into that bookshop to buy them. Whereas online, it's there 24/7 anywhere in the world.
Joanna Penn: I love that you're managing expectations. I do a lot of that on this show too, so that's good. And I feel like some of the most disappointed people in the world are authors on their first book release with a traditional publishing deal who thought that was the way in, that they've made it, but it's just the beginning.
I have talked to you privately about the possibility of doing a crowdfunding project because I can easily do print-on-demand myself, but in terms of organizing a really beautiful and designing a beautiful print run and having it printed and organizing that, to me, the crowdfunding project of a special edition is something that I feel like I would need help with.
Are you seeing people doing these kinds of special crowdfunding projects and other limited print runs of beautiful books for these special things?
John Bond: We are a business that's driven by recommendation and referral, and it's so interesting that you and I had that conversation, and there is absolutely something zeitgeisty going on with people, very cognizant of ways in which they can raise the funds to do something special. We're really excited about that. And we're increasingly helping people to understand how to do that.
They can do that via, obviously, the bigger platforms, but they can also have success doing it privately. We worked with a historian on our own extraordinary project earlier this year, David Hargreaves, who was a teacher in London who wrote with a colleague a week-by-week oral history of the First World War.
It ended up being an absolutely massive project where he was charging £100 for a four-book box set across around 3,000 pages, the whole volume was. And this had obviously been to years and years and years in the making, but his ability to pre-sell copies of that book to actually ultimately a few hundred people initially enabled him to finance the project and make it available.
And then actually it's done incredibly well, and thousands of copies later, he has a success on his hand and it led to a review in ‘The Sunday Times.'
This is not about 10,000 people, it's about hardcore fans, people with whom you have the ability to engage helping you realize something which is different, is special, is beautiful, and has an enormous value in and of itself.
And we like that approach because it feels very collaborative.
The best part of coming out of a big publishing house and coming into the space where we work now is honestly the collaborative nature, the partnerships, the idea of people working together, which again, I know it probably sounds a bit hokey, but it's really true. And we love that idea of, you know, 2 and 2 plus 2 equaling 12. It's great.
Joanna Penn: That sounds good. I do feel like yes, we all might make the bulk of our money through digital and ebooks and print-on-demand and digital audio, but at the end of the day, we're book people. I'm surrounded by a lot of hard books, and I'll buy books because they have nice foil on the cover and just like something about a physical object.
I do think this is something that a lot of indie authors want to do more of, which is these more beautiful books. They have some longevity, I think, that's what we also want, we want that physical object. And like you say, if it's only a print run of 200 or 400 or 500, those are special editions. I think that's a very exciting part of it.
I did want to ask because you briefly mentioned Barnes & Noble. Obviously, you're British.
What work do you do in the USA or globally if people are interested, what territories do you work in?
John Bond: The lion's share of our people are in London. My business partner, Annabel, is now in Los Angeles and is running White Fox U.S. from there. And that's a growing part of our business, which we're extremely excited about.
We also have somebody in France and we're increasingly working lately on non-English language projects, often books that start from the UK or the U.S., but where people want French or Spanish or Italian or German versions of those books.
We're trying not to overstretch ourselves by being distracted, but we're very keen on developing the U.S. side of the market because we think it's a really, really interesting space and definitely on the continent as well at the moment.
Joanna Penn: Are you managing translation projects? Is that what you mean?
John Bond: Yes. We worked on a book for an agency in the UK called The Happy Dog Cookbook, which was actually recipes for dogs. I know you're laughing.
Joanna Penn: No, I bet that sold loads of copies because people love their dogs!
John Bond: Absolutely. It sold a lot of copies here. And now the same for a company called Tails.com and they have operations all across Europe. So they want to do foreign language versions of that as well.
Joanna Penn: I think that's another trend is really a lot of indies moving into translation. Again, all of these things take investment and you have to have a business reason to do them, but as you said, it can be really good.
One question which I think is really important is there' are a lot of companies out there who are frankly vanity press and charge authors a lot of money and difficult contracts, where they're essentially the vanity press companies. And it's very, very hard for authors to know the difference between quality publishing partners, where yes, it's an investment. There is money involved.
You're a business and you do high-quality work, but obviously, there are other companies who might charge similar amounts of money but don't offer the same value.
How are you differentiating yourself from a vanity press and how do you encourage people to figure out what are the good companies?
John Bond: It's such a good question. And I think, again, we talked at the beginning about what's happened during lockdowns or during the pandemic around the world. And definitely, we had a lot of people who were, for want of a better word, shopping around looking for the best deals that they could get, which is completely fine, obviously, absolutely, all to the good.
We've had a few people come back to us after some fairly sharp practice, experiences of things not being done very well and people being told they can get a discount if they paid a whole fee upfront, and then not hearing from those people again for weeks. We had somebody come to us last week, who said they'd been told by one service provider that they didn't think their book needed editing. And the author said, ‘Well, I think it does.'
There's Orna Ross's Alliance of Independent Authors who do an incredible job as a watchdog over the industry. They've been fantastically supportive of us and others. Do your homework, and our experience is always to look at the work. What is the work that people have done?
We strive to do good work and be as good, if not better, in attention to detail and editorial quality and design and every single aspect as a traditional publisher.
And that's what we've always done. And we've always tried to be incredibly transparent and be available to questions about anything and not try and put up any kind of screens.
But it is hard. What do people say? Who is recommending it? What work has been done? How can I benchmark what I'm doing against what these people seem to be saying they are good at?
Take your time, and really the contract thing is a shocker, the obfuscation and opaqueness that we have seen of others. Again, we try to keep it incredibly simple and straightforward. And that seems to work for us.
Joanna Penn: Yes. I should say that a White Fox is a partner member of the Alliance of Independent Authors rated Excellent by the watchdog service. And this is what I say to authors is the first question is, is a company a partner member of ALLi? And how are they rated?
If people are interested, if you go to thecreativepenn.com/watchdog, that is a hyperlink to the watchdog service.
And also, it's about personal relationships, as you said and as we briefly mentioned, I've known you almost a decade. I've been aware of White Fox for that long. I've seen you at book fairs, I've seen the quality of the work, and I am considering working with you myself.
So that's why I wanted to talk to you because it is so hard, and yet there were more and more authors, independent authors who want help. So, obviously, by having you on the show, I'm putting my reputation behind you guys. So, it better be good!
John Bond: Thank you.
Joanna Penn: Let's talk about the future then.
Given the acceleration of change in the publishing industry, what are you excited about as you move into your next decade of White Fox?
John Bond: We've seen so much change and we love this idea that there used to be a particular way a writer would produce a manuscript. There was then a relay race where the authors waved goodbye to that manuscript as it went to their agent or to the publisher, and then through the different departments and out came a book at the other end at some point.
We just love this idea of things now starting to change. They might start as a podcast. There might be an opportunity for e-commerce, which I think has boomed in the last year, the ability to sell things directly yourself. And look at all the growth in the email subscription businesses, the Substack model, there are so many ways in which really good quality content is finding a readership, audios.
We just love this idea that there are growing numbers of services that we want to make available to the people that want to work with us. And who knows where that will be and what else will add to that?
And to do that on a more global scale, which we've started to do. We're really excited about the prospects of not just being so UK and London-orientated, but seeing what we're doing working in other territories, which is really exciting.
Joanna Penn: I'm the same. I'm particularly excited about NFTs at the moment, and I don't know if you saw, but Shopify has just announced that they are going to allow NFTs as part of their platform. And I was like, ‘Whoa, this is totally going mainstream. We're going to have digital special editions as well as physical special editions.'
There are just ever more opportunities to turn things into multiple streams of income. I'm so glad you're excited about these different ways.
John Bond: It never stands still. I think you talked about we started in 2012, which was an extraordinary year for many things. There were all sorts of things going on. And I thought what we'd be doing, it sounds ridiculous, but I thought we're going to be making apps. We're going to be doing enhanced digital additions of things.
Actually, what we found is a lot of what we do is bringing old-world publishing skills, if you want to call them that, to new-world creators in whatever manifestation they want it to be.
A lot of it is about having beautiful physical products, which people do want and see as having perceived value. But it's also making that show, or working out how I can create a subscription business based on small chunks of content rather than one large piece of content. So, it's exciting. I'm excited, Joanna.
Joanna Penn: I'm glad you're excited. I'm always excited too. I mean, there's a reason we're still doing this. There's a reason I've been podcasting since 2009 is, as you say, things keep changing.
Last year, I was like, ‘Oh, I think I'm quite bored as things kind of settled down a bit.' And then, of course, all this acceleration has happened and it's like, ‘Okay, there's definitely enough going on for another decade.'
John Bond: Absolutely.
Joanna Penn: That's for sure. Let's talk a bit about the process.
Where can people find White Fox and what can they expect if they go check out the website?
John Bond: You'll see lots of case studies. You'll see lots of examples of our work. You will see us and the team wherever we are in the world.
You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we will reply in an incredibly timely fashion to your query. We pride ourselves on responding to everybody that contacts us. I say as quickly as possible. If I say that, it sounds desperate, but it's as quickly as possible.
I can't bear some of the slackness of communication that happens inside some publishing houses. So we're good at doing that. And then let's talk and see if we are the right fit for you and you'd very quickly, if you come to us, end up having a conversation with one of the team. We're at www.wearewhitefox.com.
Joanna Penn: Brilliant. And if people would like to support the show through my link as I am an affiliate, it's thecreativepenn.com/whitefox — or just tell the team I sent you. And, of course, you can use any link you'd like. So thank you so much for your time, John. That was great.
John Bond: Thank you, Joanna. Thank you so much for having me.