Confluence News – A New Kind of Author, a New Kind of Publisher: Emma Barnes Interview

Posted by Justine Solomons on February 12, 2019, in News

Ahead of Confluence later this week Alastair Horne interviewed, Emma Barnes, founder of Snowbooks and Consonance, who offers some insights into her newest venture, Make Our Book.

‘Consonance is really a magical time-and-calmness-generator’

Agency. It’s all about agency.

I started independent publisher Snowbooks in 2003 as a pendulum-swing reaction away from the sort of job that comes with a car and a big salary but is fundamentally empty. It was my first conscious grasp of the reins of my life, really; taking control of my time to spend it on something fruitful, important to me, and creative. Something that had a chance of leaving a modest, positive, dent in the universe.

Consonance is an attempt to share the love; to provide other people with the chance to spend their time on what matters. Sure, a prosaic description of Consonance is that it’s a back-office title management, workflow and royalties system. But it’s really a magical time-and-calmness-generator. It gives the gift of harmony -- harmonious data, harmonious relationships at work, harmonious workflow -- so people can spend their time and energy on the creative task of making and selling better books. And I really believe that in these strange times, amplifying creative, thoughtful, considered voices makes a measurable difference, and I am very proud that we are an enabler of the publication of the wide range of books that Consonance’s clients create with such verve and competence.

‘Make Our Book is proper publishing for schools’

So, if Snowbooks was about giving myself agency, and Consonance is about giving all publishers agency, then Make Our Book is about giving agency to an important group who have rarely experienced it: children.

As a child, you’re always told what to do, what to think, how to be. Your work is prescribed, assessed, put on the wall, then discarded: it’s pretty awful, really. (Cue fervent nodding from my 10-year-old.)

Make Our Book is proper publishing for schools: it automatically designs and lays out a book and its cover to a professional standard. Teachers – usually the school literacy co-ordinator – set up an account on the web app. The children write and illustrate their pieces, usually as a project over Book Week, which makes for a refreshing change from 22 Harry Potters and 14 Elsas From Frozen. The older children type up all the work, which ticks the ICT skills box nicely, and a teacher scans and uploads their illustrations. At this stage, the automatically-typeset PDF is downloadable, making for a lovely proofreading and editing loop, to give children the chance to make their work as good as it can be (without this stage, they feel less proud of the finished result). The school collects pre-orders from parents and carers, and the book is delivered to school a few weeks later.

Each individual piece is a story in itself, each chapter a snapshot of a child’s class, each book a story of how the school works and thinks. And, ultimately, it’s the story of a childhood itself which is so compelling. Our first school customers have done more than one Make Our Book project, annually. So you get this astonishing progression over five or six books of a child’s work, from the early handwritten scratchings in Reception about a favourite character, to the polished, rounded prose of a Year 6 primary school veteran, fronted adverbials and all.

It’s most likely the first time that a child sees themselves on the same level playing-field as the authors of the books they are told to read. They have the power to write something that matters and persists.

‘Technology’s an enabler; it’s not the point.’

Holding their book in their hands for the first time is most likely the first time that a child sees their work as worth persisting in a very grown-up, real way. That’s why it’s important that the books look like real books; no god-awful Comic Sans, low-res images or overly-jolly clip art illustrations. Again, thank heavens POD has come on so much in the last 10 years. No more stripy colour blocks: designed right, POD books can look almost as gorgeous and artefactual as long-grain litho.

Technology underpins this process. All three of my endeavours are heavily steeped in technology, and Make Our Book wouldn’t be possible without three key changes in technology: platforms as a service; print on demand and standards.  But it’s an enabler; it’s not the point.

Our "platform as a service" suppliers provide everything you need to host and serve a web application, from the database and web servers to asset hosting and backups, all for around $70 a month -- an incredibly low price for something that could have cost tens of thousands of dollars, 15 years ago.

POD enables us to programmatically send content and cover data to the printer, and for them to print and post a single unit, economically.

There are a range of technical standards which allow us to send instructions to services in a format that will be readable. Browser compatibility, phones-as-cameras, printer APIs, programming languages: standards quietly underpin everything about the modern technical world.

And the code itself is written by me in my spare time in Ruby on Rails, the open source web development framework we also build Consonance in. All hail @dhh for extracting it from Basecamp 12 years ago – it’s a framework that has enabled thousands of people like me to discover the joy of programming, and the agency it brings (do you see a theme developing?!).

“If you have a side project, it’s yours.”

At Consonance, we’ve been trying to get people in publishing to try out programming themselves for years. For the most part, with some honourable exceptions, it’s not worked. I think it’s because we’ve promoted programming in the abstract, with courses and ideas that, yes, are related to publishing, but still just theoretical courses.

I actually think side-projects might be a silver bullet, though: the single, quick, effective key to a more vibrant publishing industry.

If you have a side project, it’s yours. You’re invested. You want it to work, and it’s that drive to get *your* thing to work how *you* want, that gets you over the infuriating hurdles that are an inevitable part of the early (and, indeed, middle and later) stages of learning to code. You don’t just get a new skill out of the effort; you get a sense of self-worth, and proof that you can achieve what you set out to achieve. Agency, again.

Side projects do come with a heavy dollop of privilege-assumption. Not everyone has a laptop, or the headspace to essentially have a second job alongside the day job, family and other obligations. But they are also a way for the more privileged to balance things out a bit and build things that solve real problems.

At General Products Ltd (that’s the business behind Consonance.app) we devote 10% of every staff member’s time a week to a personal side project. We’ve found that from an employers’ point of view, side projects are a fantastically cheap and simple way to deliver continuous professional development, and to encourage staff retention. Who honestly does their best day-job work on a Friday afternoon, anyway? It’s like we’ve reclaimed this time in the week to make it useful and inspiring.

Maybe all this talk of agency will make people consider whether their life is going in the right direction, and whether they should consider the personally-transformative power of programming a little deeper. I’m not saying everyone will immediately resign from their jobs as soon as my session’s over... but there’s nothing like a bit of an existential crisis on a cold Friday in February to get you thinking.

Emma Barnes will be speaking about Make our Book at Confluence on Friday. You can buy tickets here.

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