Behind the Biz interview with Publishing Director, Matthew Smith
Behind the Biz is all about highlighting exciting businesses, discovering the story behind the founders and inspiring you, the reader, to embark upon your own business journey. In today’s Behind the Biz interview I’m chatting with Matthew Smith, the founder of Urbane Publications – one of UK’s fastest growing independent publishers.
Please give us an overview of Urbane Publications.
Founded in February 2014, Urbane Publications Limited is an independent publisher with a list of over 100 authors and publishing 50 titles a year internationally. The focus is primarily fiction titles in the thriller, crime, contemporary fiction, and literary genres, with a focused range of non-fiction titles that fascinate us (and we hope readers!) from memoirs to business books. That’s the simple overview, but when you’re sharing the creativity of writers with a growing audience of engaged readers ‘publishing books’ doesn’t really do it justice…
Last year I was fortunate enough to work with the Chester Investment Group who became a majority shareholder in the company. This has allowed the publishing programme to build, and more importantly our more ambitious plans for the business to develop. Having done everything alone for so long, that support – not simply in terms of money but expertise, knowledge and advice – is vital for Urbane to continue to grow. Kerry-Jane Lowery stepped into the role of Managing Director and it makes a huge difference having two heads tackling challenges instead of just one!
How did you decide upon the name of your business?
Obviously, it stems directly from my sartorial elegance and unique style….
Back in the real world, Urbane felt like the right kind of word to reflect what we are aiming for with our books, doing something a little different, concentrating on good design, stories that break the mould and offer readers something more than yet another shelf-filler or trend-follower. There is still a long way to go but the brand is getting out there, and the new fox logo in particular is giving us a strong visual identity.
Of course we’re called urban a lot by mistake but that works too! 😉
But it also reflects how we like to run our business – courteous, refined, charming and hopefully with a touch of sophistication and a dash of worldly-wise!
What did you do before starting Urbane Publications?
I actually started my career a loooooooong time ago (1991 to be exact) as a Waterstones bookseller. I was earning a heady £4k a year, but it was a fantastic job. It was long before the days of central buying – and there were no ebooks or retail websites – so I ordered stock specifically for the tastes and likes of the local customers. I got to know the industry inside out, so when I eventually applied for an editorial assistant position at Routledge I was very clued up commercially and it really helped me develop quickly in what was rapidly becoming a very challenging and competitive industry.
Since then I’ve worked as an editor through to publishing director for Longman, Pearson, Arcturus, and Kogan Page – all very different publishers encompassing everything from academic monographs to textbooks, to fiction to children’s titles, to trade reference books. And yes, I have written books, but all under pseudonyms and all now very much out of print!!
Did you always plan to set up your own business?
Goodness no! To this day I still have moments where I wake in the middle of the night thinking ‘what the f**k was I doing!!?’ I did always have a dream of running a bookshop (if I was filthy rich and could do whatever I wanted) but starting my own publishing company wasn’t originally a goal. However, as the industry changed and faced some very difficult challenges – from Amazon dominance to bookshop closures to a focus on risk-averse publishing – I felt we were losing sight of the creative heart of the business and also failing to work proactively and smartly with our greatest resource – our authors.
Authors are a fantastic commodity but that doesn’t mean they should be used as a production line. I felt it was essential to bring authors back to the core of the business, collaborating with them to ensure they are a key part of the publishing process, not simply a cog in OUR wheel. And the only way I could do that was to set up on my own and put my beliefs to the test. It’s thrown up plenty of challenges, particularly around what collaboration actually means and how the word is perceived by others, but we’re now in position where we have an established, exciting list of titles, and some wonderfully talented authors who have grown with Urbane. There’s still so much to do but the future looks very bright.
What has been the highlight of your business journey to date?
Oh gosh, too many to list, from our first launch to an author appearing on Radio 4 for the first time. Obviously Chester coming on board was an enormous step forward and was a fantastic validation of what we are trying to achieve with the business. But what always matters for me – and keeps me going – is when a new book comes out and readers start responding with their feedback. When you are so close to the business you very often lose sight of what you do – and what you’ve achieved – and a reader saying ‘this is a great book’ brings home why the hard work is worth it. And there is always that moment when a new book lands on the desk where I get a genuine thrill – when that no longer happens it’s time to call it a day.
What has been one of the biggest challenges you have faced?
Actually, there are two. Firstly, having enough time. As with every independent, growing business there are NEVER enough hours in the day. There is so much more I could – and should – be doing, particularly in terms of spending more time with each and every author. I do try and take time out as well but it’s incredibly difficult as there is always something that is a priority. I’m sure there are plenty of authors who think I don’t get back quickly enough, but sometimes you have to make some very tough choices to ensure the business is put first. The business is founded on relationships, so this can be particularly taxing for me when I can’t spend hours purely on people and communication.
Secondly, is the industry itself. Without going into details, it can be very challenging to establish a publishing house in an industry where you have a huge online corporation run by algorithms on one side, and a shrinking bricks and mortar market that’s increasingly risk-averse on the other. That’s why it’s often so refreshing working with independent bookshops – they have to think about their customer base, tend to be very entrepreneurial, and are willing to consider books and authors on their own merits, not simply an established profile
What role does social media play for your business and do you have a favourite social platform?
As with many small businesses, it’s essential as a means of building relationships with our audience – and helping our authors do the same. Twitter is still very much at the forefront of that strategy, though I closed my personal Twitter account this year to put more emphasis on the company timeline. Authors are encouraged to engage with social media – particularly Twitter – and each other, as it’s a brilliant way of building networks and profile.
We are also building a very popular Instagram channel where the emphasis is on quirky, interesting images involving our books; and Facebook, which is used to develop a fantastic group of reviewers and bloggers who are interested in Urbane titles and authors. I think the key for me is that social media isn’t about direct selling, but about engagement with the company and our authors. We have a lot of very supportive and energetic followers and supporters and social media platforms have helped us both build a ‘personality’ for Urbane, and also find and meet great advocates for our authors and brand.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Buy a shedload of coffee! That aside, we read so many articles about just going for it but essentially that’s what it’s down to. You can plan all you like but in essence you need courage to go for it. It’s too easy to look at the safety net of the monthly wage packet and stay in an unfulfilling job, working long hours for someone else. And you need to be have the bravery not only to take that first step, but also to continue making brave decisions every single day. You will always be learning – and often be failing – but if you can keep focused on why you took that step (and begin to work with others who share that vision) it can not only be a successful business it can help you grow personally as well.
I sound like a walking cliché I know, but it really is as simple as taking the plunge. Usually without a life jacket or sight of any lifeboats! I’d occasionally like more sleep but other than that it’s been an incredible four years.
What’re you currently reading?
A huge pile of submissions, three completed manuscripts, and I’ve got two novels on the go – I’m re-reading Spanky by Christopher Fowler which I read at least once a year, and Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. I try to read 1-2 books a week if I can and I’m also a great supporter of local libraries and take out 5-6 books a month.
Where do you hope to take your business in 2018?
The key goal is obviously to sell more books, but just as importantly (and directly linked to this) is to continue building the profile of our authors and books (and by association Urbane). Many people have heard me banging on about discoverability, but it is absolutely essential if our business is to grow and prosper – better discoverability for each and every book and author. You can write and publish the most beautifully written novel ever, but if no-one reads it because they don’t know it exists…well, our business becomes rather redundant. This is an enormous challenge, from driving more coverage in the traditional media for our authors and books to getting more reviews per title on Amazon, but we’ve already made great strides this year and all the hard work of the last four is beginning to pay off as more of our authors see their books getting more visibility. A first bestseller? Certainly possible!
There are also plans afoot to expand the business in associated directions – we’re launching a new business imprint in May with the launch of the very exciting new book She’s Back by Lisa Unwin and Deb Khan. And later this year we’ll be running our first publishing and writing workshops, and once more putting the knowledge and experience of our authors at the heart of that undertaking – so watch this space!
Thank you so much to Matthew for taking the time to get involved with Behind the Biz. I’ve been following his journey over the last few years and knew he’d have an interesting story to tell. I wasn’t wrong. I hope you’ve all enjoyed finding out a little more about Urbane Publications and Matthew’s business journey too.
I think Matthew’s plan to create better discoverability for his authors is so important. From a personal view, I think having a strong social presence (alongside other forms of media) is key for authors today. I love following the the book writing journey of someone on Twitter and Instagram through to it being published. It helps you to make much more of a personal connection with the author and gives you the chance to see the face behind the book. I read a lot of business books and more and more authors in that niche are creating a whole brand around their book.