Today I am delighted to welcome Matthew from Urbane Publications to my blog. I discovered this small press last year and have since read a diverse and impressive selection of their books, a couple of which made it onto my list of recommended reads for 2015 (these are just a few of my reviews: Being Someone, Eden Burning, Leaves, The Unusual Possession of Alastair Stubb).
Without further ado, let us find out more about a small press which prides itself in the collaboration it offers its authors.
1. Why did you decide to set up Urbane?
Gosh, I could natter on forever about this! Despite a general persistent theme of an industry in decline, I believed there was an opportunity for innovative, entrepreneurial publishers to grow and thrive, but only if they work with the authors, rather than assuming the authors ‘work for them’. Authors aren’t simply producers of content, they live and breathe what they write and care passionately about it, and publishers have to feel that passion too if we are to produce the best books AND engage with readers. 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 simply love books.
2. What sort of books do you want to publish?
Ridiculous as it sounds, books that I think people want to read, and will enjoy reading. I thought long and hard about whether I should be a ‘niche’ publisher, perhaps literary, or crime, or professional business books. But the truth is I want to share my love of all books. Yes I consider the commercial potential of each and every project I take on – it’s a business after all – but I don’t want to be limited to a certain genre.
The only books I don’t take on are children’s/YA and erotica, simply because the children’s market is very specialist and I don’t have that knowledge or skillset to do the authors and books justice, and because I think erotica is brilliantly served by the self-publishing market and has some amazingly talented and entrepreneurial authors who it would be difficult to compete against.
If you needed to break it down, it’s roughly 70% fiction (crime/thrillers, contemporary/literary/romance and fantasy/sci fi – and yes I’m generalising!) and a mixture of non-fiction in business (an area I know well), and one offs that interest me and I feel have potential and opportunity such as memoirs, self-development and history/politics. I’ve even published a book on architecture!
3. How do you go about finding and signing authors?
I’m now in the very fortunate position that authors are beginning to find me, which is incredibly exciting, flattering and gratifying. And even a few agents are now getting in touch – the thinking being I suspect that Urbane is now growing enough for them to take the company more seriously. I do still search for specific authors for particular projects or ideas I might want to pursue, though this tends to be in the business and non-fiction genres.
I try and give a response to everybody and I always try and provide useful feedback if I can, even in a rejection. If someone has made the effort to contact me they deserve the courtesy of a decent reply. I’ve been much slower recently in replying (sorry everyone) and that’s partly down to the sheer number of projects I’m sent, but also because I want to read them all so I can respond properly.
The signing process is different for every author and begins first and foremost with deciding on some shared goals for the project and how we’re going to work together. Every book is different and it’s therefore important not to template the process at any stage, particularly at the beginning when the publisher and author are both committing to the project and each other.
4. Is your experience of marketing what you expected when you started out?
Yes, I knew it would be bloody hard and it’s even harder than that! There is so much noise now and regardless of what we might say as publishers it’s almost impossible to know exactly what works and what doesn’t. Very unscientific and scary as it sounds there’s still an element of luck in a books success, no matter how hard you work to get it right at every stage of the publication, marketing and sales process. I’ve put plenty of tools and partnerships in place to give every book a chance, from working with the brilliant sales team at Compass, hiring PR help when required or putting books on Netgalley (as well as spending far too long on social media!) and it’s a constantly evolving and engaging process. But the only marketing that is ALWAYS truly effective is word of mouth. Readers are everything and if there was one thing I could change it would be to drive home the importance to every reader that their reviews and feedback are absolutely essential to the potential success of a book.
5. There are a good number of small, independent publishers out there publishing some great works. Do you consider yourself different and, if so, how?
Urbane isn’t different in the traditional sense – it produces great books for a (hopefully) growing and eager readership. But I do think we offer a genuinely collaborative process. 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 right 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, benefits from the experience, and recommends it.
Urbane is, on paper at least, a traditional independent publisher, but I suspect we build far more partnership throughout our publishing programme than many organisations. 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 and not a key driver of the publishing experience. This seems particularly daft when the routes to market have changed so much, are so varied and competitive – you can’t just go back to an author with a templated product and ask the author to then go and market and sell it (which happens far more than people suspect). 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 want exactly the same thing – a great book that sells like hot cakes. That’s why the majority of our authors quickly earn 50% royalties. It’s not a gimmick, it’s because authors deserve a fair return on their investment and belief in their project. Not sure that all makes us very different, just hopefully a more exciting and enticing option.
6. Latest trend or totally original – what sells?
I think it very much depends on the channel you’re trying to sell it into. There’s a huge difference in the traditional, rather ‘risk-averse’ retail channels, who are very often much keener on the ‘safe’ options, or a book with a huge, guaranteed PR spend. I get that, they want sales and revenue. And being able to engage with readers direct about a new book obviously gives the publisher much more scope to push debuts or original, challenging content.
I think the key perhaps is not seeing something as trend or original, but making sure you pitch the book effectively to the relevant channel, and making sure you don’t just push the book with one story, but with the stories around the story. That’s the joy of books, they’re different for every reader and you need to try and capture some of that when you develop their profile. So for WHS they might want books that will appeal broadly to commuters, or an impulse purchaser; whereas if I’m trying to drive direct sales I can partner with specific groups and target very particular audiences. And don’t get me wrong, I’d be thrilled to have a ‘trend’ title that sells tens of thousands – but we must keep pushing to publish the new, the bold, the different, the challenging, because that is the lifeblood and the future of publishing.
7. Ebook or hard copy – what do your buyers want?
Hard copy! Print forever! I find ebooks fascinating and I’m still trying to get to grips with the entire ebook opportunity, but they’re not the ‘future’ of publishing, they are simply a different format. Print is still very much key to Urbane’s business, and I suspect every publisher’s business (that offer both options). Many reviewers, booksellers, buyers won’t even consider looking at a project if it’s not in hard copy. While I detest the ‘snob’ factor that exists in some quarters around hard copy, I do understand and appreciate the joy of print. But there is absolutely a place for digital and Urbane will always offer print, mobi and epub on its projects.
8 Do you consider Urbane niche or mainstream?
Mainstream for the most part. Of course I’d like a huge pot of money from a few million copy sellers. Yet 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 – and that’s very mainstream indeed! Of course I also have to remember I’m only 20 months in – Rome wasn’t built in a day (or 20 months for that matter!) – and I’m not competing with the big boys yet. But 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. In that sense we’re niche because we’re always trying to find the right audience for every single title.
9. You talk of collaboration with your authors – who drives?
I drive, but it’s a car with dual controls so I’m not averse to the author dabbing the brakes now and again (or in most cases wanting to put the pedal to the metal!). I like to think the author is going to trust in Urbane’s experience, but it is vital they not only see where we’re going but why we’re taking a particular route. There’s nothing better than a happy author when they receive a final copy and it genuinely reflects the vision they had for their book.
10. Plans for the future?
Still here hopefully, publishing great books! 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. There are 60 titles lined up for 2016, and the plan is to grow even more in 2017, so we’re well on our way to our goal of becoming one of the UK’s leading independent publishers.
Thank you Matthew for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about this small press, including details of their books, on their website by clicking here: Urbane Publications – Ordinary words made extraordinary
Keep up to date with all of their news via Twitter: UrbanePublications (@urbanebooks)
If you are an independent publisher and would like to be included in this series please check out my introductory post: Shout Out to Independent Publishers