Today I am delighted to welcome Matthew Smith to my blog. Matthew is the founder and force behind the independent publisher, Urbane Publications. I interviewed him earlier this year as part of my Q&A with an Independent Publisher series. Today he is giving us an update on how far the company has come.
It hardly seems possible, but it was Christmas 2013 when I walked away from a directorship with an established publisher and just two months later launched Urbane Publications. I’m often told by those I know – and people I meet on my publishing travels – that they can’t believe what Urbane has achieved in such a short space of time. But of course, and perhaps because I’m so close to everything, all I can see is what still needs developing, creating and improving.
Because publishing is a constantly evolving industry, particularly in how readers can discover and connect with books and authors, and it is this, more than anything else, which provides an independent publisher like Urbane with its greatest opportunities, and greatest challenges.
I suspect much of the ‘traditional’ publishing world longs for the ‘good old days’, the days before Amazon, the days before the self publishing phenomenon (when self publishing could be dismissed as vanity publishing), when publishers ruled the roost, and thousands of bookshops provided the only access to an audience. Those were the days when many authors were terribly grateful for a deal and 10% of bugger all. I know there are certainly times where I wish all I had to do was take the book to market knowing that getting it to stores was all the discoverability and profile I had to worry about.
Okay, of course I’m simplifying (perhaps only a little), but while many of the mechanics of the publishing world remain the same – get a great script, edit, design, print, publish (or upload!) – the route to reader, and ultimately selling copies, has changed out of all recognition. When an author can finish a script and have it uploaded and selling on the world’s largest retail platform within a day, then as publishers you know you’ve got to evolve, change your attitudes, your processes and your aims. And constantly be open to continuous change.
The premise behind starting Urbane was a simple recognition that authors were beginning to understand how vital they are to the future of publishing – not the publishers themselves – and that as a publisher if we were to have any chance of succeeding then authors had to be at the heart of what we did. This in turn – or so the theory goes! – would create a ‘community’ of engaged authors, all with their own networks and readerships, that would gradually combine to help Urbane both raise its own profile as an independent publisher in a very crowded and noisy market, and more importantly the profile of all its authors and books. And as profile goes up discoverability rises and more sales are made.
Of course, that alone isn’t enough, and as a traditional publisher Urbane is trying to continuously make inroads in bricks and mortar sales channels utterly dominated by the big five publishers, and for the most part very risk averse when it comes to non-established authors and publishers. Simultaneously I’m constantly looking at what is being achieved by the more entrepreneurial self-published authors and trying to learn from them as they have a huge number of new tricks to teach us old dogs.
It’s keeping up with opportunities – and finding those that might work – which is the biggest challenge. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last two and a half years it’s that there is NEVER one route to market, NEVER one way of doing things, and that EVERY book and author has to be treated as a bespoke project.
At the same time Urbane needed to make an impact and we have gone all out to build our ‘brand’ and our list quickly, but also to publish the books that don’t just ‘tick boxes’ but offer different, new, challenging, ‘genre busting’ themes and approaches; and to work with authors who want to grow with Urbane, who understand the sometimes harsh realities of the publishing world and the fickle nature of success in such a challenging, competitive and often ‘confusing’ marketplace.
So, two and a half years in, how are we doing? I’d probably give Urbane a B minus for achievement but an A for effort. We still have a huge way to go. I believe we’ve published some fantastic books and provided an opportunity for some very talented authors, an opportunity they perhaps wouldn’t get with other publishers, and I’m extremely proud of that. Are all our authors happy? Nope. Some inevitably will be looking for pastures new with their next project and that’s absolutely fine with me – they go with nothing but wishes of future success. But overall those authors who ‘get it’ and want to be part of that idea of community and a support network, and who understand they HAVE to be an integral part of the process not just during the book’s creation but post publication, are definitely starting to benefit. Of course, there will always be those books that don’t work no matter how hard we try and want them to succeed, and every new debut is a genuine challenge, but after two years of hard work Urbane is now in a place where much bigger success seems like a genuine opportunity rather than just a pipe dream.
Sales this year have already doubled with a month still to go. We have great partnerships with a distributor (CBS), a UK sales force (Compass) and have just signed agreements with The Rights People and also Durnell to represent our rights and our European sales respectively. The first range of Audible deals were also signed this year (with more to come) and there is a genuine sense of progress, that retailers and readers alike are starting to take notice of Urbane’s authors. And of course, our profile within the bricks and mortar channels is particularly gratifying with sales to Waterstones this year up 636%. This is off a tiny – and I mean tiny – base in 2015, but it’s still reassuring to know that the books we are publishing are deserving of their place in the leading bookshops. And the support of WHSmith has been particularly welcome and vital in growing our lists and long may it continue! We have also taken on continuous PR support to help to continue to raise the profile of all our books, particularly in the traditional media.
What needs to improve? EVERYTHING! On a personal level I want to spend far more time with individual authors to ensure they are fully supported in their writing and publishing ambitions, and that includes those who writers who send proposals to Urbane – I’m absolutely guilty of not getting back to people quickly enough because of other priorities. And of course that has to be set against the need to continually drive forward the business, and most importantly the profile and discoverability of our books and authors. One day Urbane will have the cash to splash on huge marketing campaigns. But until then we have to work – and I mean work – for every single book sale. Until we are in a position to guarantee visibility for every single book, we have to focus on driving profile through every channel and means possible. And this is where bloggers, reviewers and readers have been integral to our growth and will be vital to our future success. I spoke earlier about the community of authors, but that extends far beyond our writers to every single person who has ever seen and read an Urbane book. Every comment, every tweet, every facebook post, every review builds our company, supports our authors, and gives us new and exciting opportunities.
That’s the key. For all the shenanigans, politics and frustrations of the publishing industry and how we must work so hard to make an impact in such difficult times, I’m absolutely convinced Urbane will succeed. Because we are creating priceless word of mouth, we are building a community of readers and writers and supporters, and we believe there is a readership for every book we publish, regardless of whether it gets reviewed in the Guardian or not. Our challenge will always be finding that readership, but if you’re reading this right now, perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve added another fabulous Urbaneite to our ranks.
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