Thursday, 21 March 2013

PI Interview: Digital is a ‘Dirty Reality’ with Kemberlee Shortland

{interview conducted with Stephanie Lawless of Publishing Ireland

Kemberlee Shortland is the owner of digital-only publishing company Tirgearr Publishing- the only such publisher in Ireland. This week marks Tirgearr’s first anniversary for which several events have been pencilled in to mark the occasion. In addition to being interviewed on …, Kemberlee is also keen to promote Read and eBook Month for March. Although this is in Canada , it has spread internationally. The event kicks off with a weeklong Read an eBook Week from 3-9 March, starting this Sunday and carrying on until the following Saturday, where digital books are being offered at knockdown prices, some even free. Publishing Ireland talked to Kemberlee about what it means to be a digital-only publisher in Ireland, the advantages and disadvantages of selling only eBooks and what digital publishing means for the future of the industry. 

PI - How are things going for Tirgearr one year on? 

KS - Well, we were supposed to start our sale today but about a quarter of our books are missing from part of Amazon’s catalogue. We can’t do a search by title, author, publisher or ASIN number. The only way we can get onto the page is if you get the link directly on our website that we put on but then it comes up with no information saying that this book is no longer available for sale. Ireland and England are suffering from that. They might be up and available in my lifetime but I doubt it.

It’s kind of a quiet anniversary but what we announced last night was that March is ‘Read an eBook Month’ and while it’s a Canadian national holiday, it’s actually going international so we’re picking up on that and we’re going to have our sale the first week of that month. All our books are going down to 99c since we’re a year old. They will all be on sale from Sunday and we hope that Amazon will have their finger out so we can get all of our books on sale through their site.

Digital books are really the big thing right now, I mean everything is online- music, movies, television, videos, books, everything. It’s kind of neat that Canada recognises it as a whole month and not just a day. It’s great that other groups are getting involved in this in an international venue too. There’s another publishing company called Samhain Press which is the second biggest publishing company right now. They’re offering some knock-down prices and also some free books. We’re not doing any contest or anything to give anything away but we are knocking down our prices for pretty good discounts. We’ll just give some books away at random to some people off our media sites.  It’s not something that we’re pushing you know- that’s the thing about our company. We’re quite relaxed. We do want our authors to get something out of it other than just name recognition. Royalties always help!

PI - Why the decision to go digital-only?

KS - Like I said, everything is going on the internet- movies, music – it’s all on the internet. People are also into eco-living and downsizing. I mean you get people who say if I had to leave my house today I could only take what I could fit in my car. You know there are people out there that would need a van to just move their book collection! They don’t have to do that if it’s on digital- they can put it on a flash drive or your iphone or whatever.

Well you know it’s funny how things go. I was always active in photography, just as a hobby and I always the 35 mm and rolls and rolls of film and then I got a digital camera. I thought I’d never use it and then the second I picked it up and was able to put thousands of photographs on a flash drive and not have to spend all this money on film- and film was pretty expensive back in the day and I could go through ten rolls in an afternoon! That wouldn’t even fill half of a flashcard. I’ve got a practically brand new Cannon 35 mm camera sitting in storage because I’m just not using it anymore. Since I switched to digital I haven’t looked back. The same thing happened when I got my Kindle. So I got my reader (which was given to me) and I actually haven’t bought one paperback for the last two years. They’re all digital and now that we’re publishing, I don’t even buy books because I have so many submissions coming in, I don’t have time for pleasure reading!

PI - Does this change the way in which you read now? Are you more clinical and editorial?

KS - It does. I did book reviews for over 15 years and I still do if there’s a book that I really feel strongly about. I start looking at books thinking ‘they missed this plot development. They really could have expanded thought or they could have done this with the character or the drama or the romance or the horror or whatever. I also notice spelling errors. Nobody’s perfect, I mean one or two is ok but when you start seeing them on every other page or if there are grammatical problems you go into ‘editor mode’.
We went to the Cork Opera House to see the Grapes of Wrath years ago by John Steinbeck, who was a classic author from the 40’s. I actually grew up in an area called Steinbeck Country, which is where he lived and wrote most of his stories, so I was really curious about how Irish actors would take to an American Depression-era story. When we went in the stage had nothing on it except the actors and maybe one prop. They sucked me in- I could actually see the dustbowls of Oklahoma, I could see people travelling in their old beat-up cars heading west to California where the work was supposed to be. I could see it. They had the accents down and it was perfect. Then one guy said ‘garage’ [rhyming with marriage] it was like ice-water in the face! At that point I was ready to get up and leave. It’s like that when I’m reading. If I’m reading this really great book and I get halfway or two-thirds of the way through it and suddenly something just throws me out I can’t get into it any more. Even it’s like some small, simple historical element that’s glaringly wrong it’s like a slap in the face. I don’t want to get slapped again so I just put the book down! What’s worse is that these books are actually getting published and getting good reviews, which just goes to show that the reviewers don’t know what they’re talking about.

PI - With the proliferation of information on the internet, the potential for glaring inaccuracies has exploded. Does this emphasise an even greater need for editorial guidance and precision?

KS - Well one thing that really stayed with me since the Book Festival when I was on the panel with Anthony Farrell from Lilliput was a comment he made to somebody in the audience that publishers are gatekeepers to quality publishing. Basically, you submit your book and the publisher will make sure that it’s edited properly and that it’s got the right cover and presentation. Self-publishing authors don’t really do that. The finances for a lot of professional editing mean that they might be able to afford to have the first three chapters edited and that’s the part of the book that would be really nice but when you submit that book to a publisher, the rest of the book really falls down. I see that quite a bit. He was really correct in saying that because without professional editing, you’re going to miss out on this stuff.

PI - You say you offer a full-circle service to your authors. What does this service entail?

KS - Our books are edited between the editor and the author. The author is involved in their editing process. We don’t just take the book, edit it and throw it up on the internet and try to sell it. We want the author involved in the process of the book because it’s their creation. We have debut authors who are actually co-authoring a book that’s out this Thursday which is set in 1775 and involves the start of the American Revolution so it involves a lot of historical details that have had to have been gone through. We have had two editors on it to make sure that it’s right. We have had it proof-read twice, with a third proof-reading now that it’s finished and going through to publication. We want this book to be as correct as possible. With the amount of eyes that we have had on the story, we are actually battling between ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’ and making sure that it’s right.  So we want to be those gatekeepers that Anthony mentioned.

PI - The last time we met was at the Publishing Ireland digital session at the Dublin Book Festival where discussions about what exactly an eBook is got quite heated. I even remember the phrase ‘dirty reality; being floated as the defining aspect of epublishing in today’s publishing climate. Do you agree with this?

KS - I asked him at the end of that show ‘do you mind if I take that and put it on my business card’- you know ‘digital books are a dirty reality!’ If it sells books I’ll tart it up as much as I can! We might actually have to come up with a real erotica line under the name ‘dirty reality’.

PI - I see you are now branching out in terms of genre in Tirgearr into historical fiction and more to come. What made you begin with romance and erotica?

KS - We accept all genres with the exception of children’s and young adults- simply due to the content on our site. We don’t want there to be confusion or anything or to have a child looking for something that might be suitable for them and then coming across all this other stuff.

Romance is not really a surprise because my background is in romance. I know a lot of people in the romance business and a lot of romance falls through to the erotica line. Erotic romance is basically a romance with more sex in it. We don’t really get into the harsh erotic or porn side of it where it’s just like making out stories. For me personally and our business ethic, sex has to have a purpose. It has to have meaning. That’s where a lot of erotica is going today. It’s pornography and it’s being dumbed-down as erotica. If you have a graphic, physical sex act and that’s all it is, well that’s all it is.

And EL James? Do you think that her self-directed method made her work suffer in terms of quality?

KS - She actually was published with a company in England and then her rights were later sold off to bigger companies as she got noticed? I have great respect for what EL James has done and the success that she has made, however, for all the publishing that she’s done and the opportunities that she’s had to improve her work, the editing of the book is still horrible! The situations with her characters are believable only to an extent. You really want to be a masochist to get into a lot of it. The books were originally going to be banned because of their explicitness. Then of course you get the ‘I’ve got to get this book before it gets banned’ effect!

PI - You list some advantages and disadvantages of adopting digital formats on your site- one of which was that eBooks are generally less expensive than their print counterparts. This is a controversial enough issue. Can you expand a little on what you mean by this?

KS - I don’t think VAT comes into with the exception of selling eBooks in Ireland, because the VAT is so high here.  What happened was when digital publishing first started coming on about fifteen or sixteen years ago, books were pretty inexpensive. The traditional publishers shunned digital publishers, saying that this was a fly-by-night kind of thing it’ll go away in a couple of years but it didn’t. It grew and grew and grew because digital publishing companies were publishing books that the traditional publisher was afraid to. They were cross-genre books, they were subjects that had never been tried and tested before. If it wasn’t for digital publishing, we wouldn’t have the likes of vampire stories like Twilight or EL James’s stuff. JK Rowling wouldn’t be in the mainstream right now for example. What’s happening is that digital publishing and traditional publishing had this great chasm between them because traditional publishers were ignoring it, hoping it was going to go away but you’ve ended up seeing really great publishers going bust because paper sales have failed. Dorchester Publisher was one of the biggest romance publishers in America and their paper sales started failing so they turned their company around to digital only. Then their authors who had been with them for a long time said to them you can’t do this. Our contracts are for paperbacks and you can’t deny me what I’ve had for the last 20 or 30 years, like Morgan Llewellyn. You’re going to go all digital, why submit to Dorchester because they’re no longer giving you advances? You could go to any digital publisher. Within six months they were closed. Authors who were there were left scrambling.

When it comes to the pricing, traditional publishers are actually trying to catch up to where digital publishing is. They don’t quite get that digital books are supposed to be cheaper than the print book and when they release a book in print, they release a digital book at almost the same price. It’s slightly cheaper but it should be about half as cheap really. The biggest thing that I’ve seen, and it’s a problem for me only because I’ve seen both sides of it, is that the pricing of books in Ireland is so much more expensive than in America. People who are internet-savvy are buying books off Amazon and so bookstores are really starting to suffer. We’ve already seen this with Hughes & Hughes and with Waterstones. The smaller shops are also having a hard time because they really rely on Eason’s because they are bookseller as well as a retailer. I went into one of their stores last week and I was looking at a paperback for €22! This was a book that would have been €15 a couple of years ago. Even on the three for two table, I know what their mark-up is and they are still making a killing.

PI - If what you’re saying is true then surely there is simply no room for print anymore? Or is there?

KS - Certainly there is. I see some point in the distant future, and I’m talking about not even in your great grandchildren’s time, that everything is going to be electronic. Right now there’s a place for both of them.

PI - Another disadvantage that you mention refers to ‘traditional devices’ and the fact that they are designed for mass market type books. Firstly, what are these devices? And second- Do you see any kind of solution on the horizon for this problem in terms of developing platforms for a more eclectic kind of audience?

KS - If you can get it onto an epub format or an applications format you can get it onto any format going. They’re traditionally meant for the mass-market books and those would be original paperbacks. Paperbacks were originally meant as cheap, throwaway books. They were printed on cheap paper with cheap ink, cheesy covers and they were meant to be read like eating ice-cream. They were meant to be gobbled down. This goes back to the 70’s when novels became really popular when romance and erotica books became mainstream. What’s changed today is that you’ve got colour screens, you’ve got tablets, everything is easy to take with you. Now you can put a whole cookbook into full colour format with embedded video. You couldn’t do that a couple of years ago. You certainly can’t do that with a traditional book.

PI - You yourself are a writer which is something I didn’t know. Is this an advantage or disadvantage in terms of self-editing and self-censoring? Are you too aware?

KS - I have a lot of experience in the publishing business. I worked in bookstores, I was a book-buyer, I was a book-puller in a warehouse, I’ve done reviews, editing, proof-reading and publishing just seemed to be the next thing. I’ve been writing since I was really young and I started publishing in 2006. When I’m writing my own stuff, I’m able to do a bit of self-editing much better than I would have otherwise. I see the mistakes that people are making and I then make sure I don’t do that in my work. I would never self-edit and then publish though. Everything that I’ve ever published- even through our own company goes through the same rigorous editing that everybody else does.

PI - I was going through Tirgearr’s site and one of the things that struck me most about your FAQ page was the fact that you don’t accept submissions that don’t include what you call an HEA, or ‘happily ever after’ ending. Is this really true and if so, do you find it restricts you in a good way or is there room for stories with a darker edge?

KS - That’s for romance. For romance it has to be a ‘happy ever after’ or what they call an ‘HEA’ or a ‘happy for now’. People don’t have to get married or have babies or ride off into the sunset on the back of a horse, but the readers want to be satisfied. They don’t want to read about a heroine who goes through all these trials and tribulations and emotional growth with her hero or partner to find that she dies in the end.

PI - What’s next for Tirgearr Publishing?

KS - We’ve talked about eventually putting up a separate website for children’s and young adult stories because they are very popular. We just want to get this end of the company sorted out first before we do anything else. We want to make sure this house is paid off before we start putting extensions on! Right now we are just doing what we did last year. We are getting some great books out there and we are also looking for a minimum of two new editors and a new proof-reader or two. We’re gaining in popularity which is great. Because I’m from a romance background, we just happen to be getting a lot of those kinds of submissions but we are looking for other genres. Right now I’m looking at my list of what I have to send out to readers and they’re all thrillers and dramas. We have an author by the name of David Toft who lives in Dublin and whose book The Cycle’s Turn we are bringing out in April. This is a pure fantasy and not a cross-over so that will be interesting and we are very hopeful for it. We are hoping that he is going to open the door for us in terms of non-crossover genres. We are also doing Stella Whitelaw’s Jordan Lacey Series in digital.

Tirgearr Publishing is celebrating its first year anniversary by running a sale until 9 March to coincide with Canada’s Read an eBook Month. For details, go to

This interview originally appeared on the Publishing Ireland website on 7 March 2013. Reposted with permission.