Lee Jackson is the author of a number of fine historical mysteries, including London Dust, A Metropolitan Murder and The Mesmerist’s Apprentice. His most recent novel is The Diary of a Murder, which is published by Snowbooks, though it first appeared as a self-published e-book. Alongside his fictional crime-writing activities, Lee is a well-known and respected authority on the Victorian age, in particular Victorian London. He is the founder and curator of the Victorian London website www.victorianlondon.org, an invaluable resource for anyone interested in researching the period. Recently, he has set up a publishing arm to Victorian London, Victorian London Ebooks, re-issuing electronic editions of rare Victorian (and Edwardian) texts. I recently read one of his publications, Journal of a Disappointed Man, and can honestly say it is one of the most extraordinary and moving books I’ve ever read.
What first made you decide to become an e-publishing magnate?
Magnate? The canny reader may surmise that Roger is flattering me here; but he will still not receive a discount on his next purchase. I should also point out that, at the moment, I’m just publishing via Amazon – not via Kobo, Sony, Apple or elsewhere.
I’ve always been fascinated by the possibilities of publishing historical material on the web. I’ve been using the internet since 1993 (when it still looked like this) and I’ve been digitising material for my own site for the last ten years. That, of course, was gratis – but the rise of Amazon, Kindle and Twitter seemed to offer a new model for self-publishing.
Also, I really needed the money.
You’re pretty savvy when it comes to all things computer-related. Presumably this helps? Do you think it enabled you to see the potential of e-books before other people did?
I don’t think I’m especially ahead of the curve, although it’s very hard to judge. As a ‘publisher’ I’ve sold (at a low price) about 25,000 ebooks this last eight months, which is probably quite good – but I have very little to compare it with.
As for the potential of ebooks, the fact that my dad loves his new Kindle – he’s a serious reader, vaguely open to technology, but still not master of things like, erm, ‘cut and paste’ – well, that tells me a lot. I do think people have been very very slow to appreciate what a well-designed product Amazon has produced, dazzled by all the slick marketing and style of iPads et al. The Kindle is functional, light-weight, pretty intuitive to use, cheap; and, of course, coupled with Amazon’s superb infrastructure for selling. I don’t know the Sony and Kobo readers – and I’m not even particularly familiar with things Apple – but I think the Kindle is a lovely, unassuming, work-horse – which is exactly what the dedicated reader of books wants.
I am not sponsored by Amazon. Although I will accept any offer.
Your approach to e-publishing is slightly different to other writers. Although you’ve published one of your own novels, most of the books you’ve published are by dead writers. Where or how do you find the books on the Victorian London list? What are you looking for in a typical Victorian London publication?
The ideal book is one that most people haven’t heard of before; and one that explores obscure, unusual, fascinating aspects of Victorian London life. The first book I published on Kindle, for example, was The Hooligan Nights – a ‘true story’ of sorts, written in the late 1890s, about teen street gangs in Lambeth. It’s an amazing read and I suspect many of its readers will have been astonished by its treatment of crime, the glimpses of street culture, and the marvellous anti-hero – young ‘Alf’ – a ‘hoodie’ of the period. There is so much more to Victorian London than Dickens or Sherlock Holmes – that’s what I’m after – the bits we have missed.
Before you can publish them, you have to scan them in page by page. Isn’t that rather laborious? Or weirdly therapeutic? Or perhaps you have child labourers to do that work for you, in the spirit of Victorian London?
Yes, the majority of things I’ve published have been scanned by the Optical Character Recognition Urchins who sleep in the coal shed. Gruel, as an incentive, is much underestimated by modern publishers. This is where I have the edge.
Actually, my camera now does most of the image capture side; it’s much quicker than my old scanner.
Are you surprised at the success of Victorian London books? And what do you put it down to?
The success is amazing. The best-seller Daily Life in Victorian London – an anthology of my favourite Victoriana – accounts for about 2/3 of sales, and then there’s a sliding scale for the rest (I’ve published nine books so far – many more to come this year). In part, I’ve done well because ‘Daily Life’ is – dare I say it – simply a great read. But I’ve also been astonished by the sales of London and Londoners in the 1850s and 1860s – a truly excellent memoir of daily life by, erm, a distinguished Victorian electrical engineer. Equally, by the relative lack of sales for a couple of the other titles. What makes a particular title do well – I’ve no real idea. I think that’s something I have in common with most people involved in publishing, mind you.
Twitter is definitely a factor – without any other ‘marketing’ avenue, my hard-pressed twitter followers bear the brunt of my efforts to sell stuff. For some reason, they stick with me.
Masochists, the lot of them.
What’s your approach to marketing? Is it easier promoting the Victorian London books than pushing your own? Any tips?
The books are an odd mixture – one novel (my own), one anthology (my own, in that I put it together), and seven other titles, including a novel, diary, memoir and various bits of Victorian journalism, from the whimsical to the investigative. I can’t therefore say I’ve got a great overall marketing strategy other than ‘tweet about them quite a bit’, combined with a bit of sincerity. These are all books I think are great – even, ahem, my own – for which I have a deep and heartfelt enthusiasm. I think people warm to that – ie. I’m not pitching books because I’ve been in a sales meeting earlier that day; these are books which I love.
Is conventional publishing dead? A bit like being a sail-maker in the age of steam? Do you have plans to produce paper editions of any of the Victorian London books?
My novel The Diary of a Murder is already in print with Snowbooks. If anyone wanted to produce a print version of Daily Life in Victorian London I would be open to offers. The other books – the out-of-print titles by Victorian and Edwardian authors – wouldn’t make much financial sense to produce in print. For a start, some can be found relatively affordably on www.abebooks.com. Secondly, I can make a decent royalty on an ebook published for £1.99 – to get the equivalent in print, you would need to triple the price and be fairly confident about achieving a certain level of sales – something that would be impossible to predict. The beauty of Amazon is that I can publish anything and, if it flops, I’ve only lost the time and effort; if it succeeds, I make a profit.
You have a non-fiction book coming out soon. But you’re not publishing it yourself. Who is? Why? And what’s it all about? Did you consider releasing it as a Victorian London publication?
Walking Dickens’ London was commissioned by Shire Books. It’s a print guide-book – and Shire have the rights to create an ebook version. It’s meant to be held in your hand as you walk around, and contains lots of lovely colour pictures of obscure bits of Victorian London – it’s a project that rather demands a print format, and Shire have excelled themselves in terms of layout and design. Fingers crossed, a nice electronic version will appear in due course.
My next ebook will be a non-fiction book about working life in Victorian London – based on my own research. Will people buy it? I have no clue. Regardless, I love the idea of getting my own work ‘out there’ immediately, without the usual 12 months’ gap involved in print publishing.
Any advice for anyone who might be thinking of dipping a toe in the e-publishing waters?
Publish only books you adore; proof-read; and tweet a lot.
Or use an alias.
Lee, aka @VictorianLondon, can be followed on twitter here.