FINDING NEW VOICES
DEFINING NEW GENRES
Here are a few thoughts that came out of a Q & A with Authoramp. Please do come back to me with comments and questions, be great to hear what you think!
Q&A with Matthew Smith, Director of Urbane Publications
Hi Matthew, thanks for sitting down with us on this lovely September day for a cup of tea and a chat.
Firstly, tell us a bit about Urbane. Why did you set it up?
Oh crumbs, how long have you got? Despite a general persistent theme of an industry in decline, I believe there is a huge opportunity for innovative, entrepreneurial publishers to grow and thrive, but I didn’t feel I could pursue the opportunities open to publishers working for another company. So I took the plunge and before I knew it was knee deep in exciting new books! The aim is to publish great books yes, but also to create a fully engaged publishing experience where all those who touch a project, from author to reader, feel part of something unique, innovative and special. It may be a cliché but sometimes if you want to do what you believe in you have to get off your arse and do it yourself. And when’s all said and done I blooming well love books!!!
What makes Urbane different from other publishers?
Collaboration. And that’s not a word said lightly. This isn’t about providing a production service. I could do that, I could take advantage of the self-publishing boom, set up a system and charge authors a healthy fee to throw their unedited words together between some covers. But I think there’s a better way, a route that provides authors with all the benefits of traditional publishing (an engaged editor, script development, knowledge, design, route to market, promotion etc) but with creative and commercial engagement at every part of the process. Every aspect of the project is a shared experience and authors choose to engage as much or as little as they want. Every project is unique – I can’t stress that enough – and every project is developed on and around its merits and strengths, and the strengths of its author. No pigeon-holing here, the aim is to innovate, challenge, excite – to establish new voices and give readers the opportunity to discover new talent.
Why should an author come to you rather than a traditional publisher?
Because authors are consistently at the centre of the publishing experience, from initial discussion and on throughout the life of the book. Every single project is unique and every author plays a key role in not just delivering a manuscript but bringing it to life. For too long many in the publishing industry have been treating authors as a commodity, a deliverer of content, part of a process not the key driver of the publishing experience. This seems particularly daft when the the routes to market have changed so much, are so varied and competitive, that the same publishers then come back to the author with a finished product and ask them to market and sell it. No wonder so many authors self-publish. I need authors to be engaged from day one – they are my most valuable piece of content. The book is their vision, I’d be mad to dismiss their input. The aim is shared goals from the outset – what do we want, how can we make it happen, how do we realise success. It makes for a lively, engaged (occasionally positively combative!) and ultimately fulfilling publishing experience where both parties ant exactly the same thing – a great book that sells like hot cakes. That’s why the majority of our authors get 50% royalties. It’s not a gimmick, it’s because authors deserve a fair return on their investment and belief in their project.
What have been the biggest challenges in launching Urbane? Has it been hard to stay true to your vision for the company?
Getting the message out there has been a challenge, particularly when there are still so many misconceptions about the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ way to publish. Every project is different. For some authors an agent is the way to go, for others self-publishing. There’s no single way of doing things. I’m trying to find an agile, responsive and consistently positive route through all the options so any author who works with Urbane, and any reader who engages with one of our books, enjoys the experience, and recommends it!
And yes of course I’d like a huge pot of money from a few million copy sellers. No matter how good the words, if people don’t discover and buy the books the revenue doesn’t exist to create more, so driving revenue is always going to be the key challenge. Of course I also have to remember I’m only six months in – Rome wasn’t built in a day (or six months for that matter!). And the wonderful aspect of not having a set way of doing things, of not pursuing the same templated, overhead-slashing process for every book, means that each project can be, and is, an entrepreneurial opportunity. The aim is always to try different strategies with each and every title, always striving to drive discoverability and ultimately sales. And even after 25 years working with content I’m still learning. This is a dynamic, incredibly fast-moving industry and one of the biggest challenges is keeping up with all the opportunities. I don’t want to miss a thing! Discoverability and sales are the ultimate goal for every project, because for all the quality in every book they have to sell to be deemed successful.
Do you think there is a real need for more innovation in the publishing industry?
I think that depends on what is perceived by innovation. Innovation is not taking your content and publishing it digitally. Or putting a QR code on a cover. At least not as far as I’m concerned. Innovation should be about game changers, questioning our established systems and processes to pursue entrepreneurial, agile and challenging strategies. I believe innovation lies in publishers having the courage to put faith in their authors and their content and not simply their ability to control overheads and processes. If we can genuinely start to produce content in a fluid, interactive, open and engaged way then that is innovation. And the author is vital to that happening.
Hachette vs. Amazon – who is your money on?
In the end, like or loathe them, Amazon is simply a route to market. A very dominant one. I detest the way they manipulate suppliers and use their position as a near monopoly to try and control and dominate. But it’s hardly a surprise surely that a huge corporation is focused on making money? As publishers I think we rather enjoy using them as an excuse rather than a motivator to innovate and do things differently. The truth is they’re a shop and people choose where to shop. If you want to sell books you either have to engage with the Amazon channel or you have to make damn sure you can reach your readers another way. I think there is a question of education here – both educating readers on the alternative platforms and channels open to them to buy books and content, and educating ourselves on how to do that. If I truly want to excel as a publisher then I need to sell direct, I need to engage one-on-one with all my customers and create an Urbane community that is loyal, committed and always hungry for the next book. The reality as it stands is that we all bitch about Amazon but wed find it bloody hard to sell books without them. I’d rather divert my energy into finding ways to bring the readers direct to me so that Amazon does just become another channel rather than the channel that defines how we price, discount and ultimately publish. Some niche publishers have succeeded incredibly well at this –we should all be engaging with our readers more proactively.
We see you have some great books out already – can you tell us about any future releases?
The first tranche of titles was primarily fiction-led, but there are a number of very exciting non-fiction titles on the way over the next 6-12 months. Essentially Urbane will continue with a very strong fiction line up, but there will also be a business and self-development list, as well as general non-fiction (from music biographies to humour). The first of the business books is The Diego Masciaga Way – Lessons from the Master of Customer Service. Publishing in November it’s already garnering some great endorsements and feedback and I have very high hopes for the impact it will have on the Service industries. I hate to be a tease but there are a few I can’t talk about yet but they are tremendously exciting – you’ll just have to watch this space!
If there was one author alive today you would want to work with, who is it and why?
The next one I sign, because they are keeping the dream alive.
We all know it’s a crowded market place. How do you think an author can set himself or herself apart from the (huge amounts of) competition out there today?
It has to be persistency and belief. There is still a rather entrenched perception of publishing that simply getting a book produced means it will be read. Or that readers will rush to grab a copy. There are absolutely no guarantees, no defined routes to market, no established coverage of new titles, and no immediate profile for new authors with something to say. Discoverabilty is vital to a book’s success but achieving it is bloody hard work. Frankly that’s where a partner like Authoramp is vital, to enable an author and publisher to truly exploit the myriad marketing and promotional outlets available, from dedicated genre bloggers to review sites to more traditional coverage such as newspaper reviews. But the strongest and most powerful marketing is still word of mouth, personal recommendation, an individual endorsement – and authors are key in making that happen as the word always begins within their network.
Where do see Urbane being in the next 5 years?
Still here hopefully, publishing great books and content! If I can take the company to the point where author AND reader genuinely thinks of Urbane as their first choice, then that would be a huge achievement.