Interview by Press literary editor, Jo Ely
Matthew Smith has spent the last 25 years working with books, beginning as a Waterstones bookseller in 1991. He was a commissioning editor and manager at major UK publishers Routledge, Longman, Arcturus, Hodder Headline, Pearson and Kogan Page. In early 2014 Matthew founded Urbane Publications, an independent UK publisher, producing print and digital books in a number of genres from fiction to poetry to business. Matthew has a special interest in genre-busting fiction, publishing debut authors, as well as new works from established writers. http://urbanepublications.com
JO ELY: Matthew, less than two years ago you left an editorial directorship, at a traditional publishing firm, in order to found an innovative indie publisher, Urbane Publications. Since then you’ve had books in Waterstones and WHSmiths, you’ve recruited some big names, had books shortlisted for awards and, crucially, you’ve invested in several debut authors. In fact you’ve grown to 75 books at my last count. Can you talk a bit about your journey through the publishing scenery of the last twenty years, and give us a sense of the way in which your own work has changed and evolved within it?
MATTHEW SMITH: When I first started out in publishing (in fact I began my career as a Waterstones bookseller!), the only place to sell a book was in a bookshop. Individual stores could fill the shelves with some quite esoteric stuff as they had a large customer base which they often knew very well. Of course not all of the books were great, but the business was driven by publishers not retailers – publishers held all the strings and there were plenty of bookshops to sell in.
A lot of people still harp back to that ‘simpler world’ (note my inverted commas). But now there are myriad platforms which a publisher can engage with. There are immense opportunities. But then the scary thing is that I constantly worry ‘What am I not doing?’ Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube … Eighteen months into Urbane’s life and I still feel I’m only scratching the surface of what is possible [in terms of finding routes to the reader].
For me it’s about finding that balance between effectively using the traditional publishing outlets and also looking for the kind of entrepreneurial activities which genuinely drive the discoverability of books and authors.
Of course the first hint of a book’s profile and discoverability will come from an author talking to their network. Whether they’re an established award winning writer, a company director or a mum of three … They have a network, and often a very energetic one.
JE: Do you think that the publisher-author relationship has changed?
MS: I believe so. The process used to be that the publisher controlled everything. The publisher held the whip hand and ‘did everything’ and the writer therefore thought, perhaps rightly at the time, that the publisher was also going to find their audience for them.
When you only had bookshops to sell in and very particular channels to publicize through, that was a formula that could often work. Whereas now…there are twelve and a half million books on Amazon alone. And so the question becomes, how do you make one book stand out?
You have to bring the author into the heart of the exercise. Now that might sound like a romanticized empowering thing…But from the publisher’s point of view, it is a commercial imperative. The publisher should be saying to the author, ‘Look. You bring your knowledge, experience, network and energy. And I’ll bring the effective traditional editorial and publishing skills, the sales team, distribution and marketing into play.’ Collaborating together, not working in blinkered isolation.
JE: Everyone rolls up their sleeves….
MS: I think too often the traditional publishing model [often at a large publishing house] is ‘We’ll give a book six weeks [of marketing] and then we’ll throw it back in the pile.’
So if a big publisher puts out fifty books in a month, you might genuinely hear about ten of them. And then the formula can be to throw the marketing budget at the ten that achieve immediate traction.
JE: The other forty writers might have been better off with a good independent.
MS: Obviously there are publishers who are doing amazing things. But there are others who are, in effect, saying to authors, ‘Give us your manuscript for 10% net receipts (you can have 10% of nothing)’. Nine months later, from the author’s point of view, they’ve got a manuscript with changes they’re not happy with, they’ve got a book cover they’ve never seen. The book has come out with little or no fanfare from their publisher and ‘Hey, guess what! Now you’re supposed to sell it too.’ Of course I’m generalizing here, but I hear so many times from authors about how they feel they’re distanced from their own work. Authors deserve a service.
Looked at from the other side, it can also be hard for a publisher working at the coal face. Under pressure to take on guaranteed commercial successes [and to sell vast quantities of books] adding in hundreds of engaged, opinionated authors would bring its own stresses! But if that publishing model [of not engaging with or consulting the author] works enough (ie the publisher develops enough bestsellers to carry the rest) why bother changing it? Sheer size wins the day! That doesn’t work at Urbane–if you want to publish with me then you have to understand that we are all going to work hard and be part of the process. I want to develop a publishing house where the authors are an integral part of the growth and success story.
JE: What kind of qualities must a manuscript or book proposal have to make you sit up and pay attention and, conversely, what would make you put a pitch down?
MS: Pitches do differ dramatically in quality.
JE: That’s a diplomatic answer.
MS: I wish I could say that there was some magic ingredient. Good writing obviously plays its part, but it makes a huge difference when an author shows awareness of the target readership and likely market. Writing is a beautiful creative process but at some point if you want your book to be read–sounds obvious, I know, but so many proposals I receive show absolutely no interest in the audience.
JE: You’ve taken on a lot of debut authors, but not only newcomers….
MS: I recently had a conversation with an established Romance author whose publisher didn’t want her to write anything outside her genre. Romance only! But she had an idea for a crime fiction novel, and it was great. I said, ‘They’ve forgotten that you’re a writer.’ ‘Yes!’ She said. She was absolutely ready to write something different. Because the industry has become so risk-averse we seem quite keen to fit authors into nice, neat boxes (particularly when their books start selling) but there’s no reason a great writer can’t author great books in another genre. He says hopefully!
JE: And this relates to your genre-busting books …
MS: I would say that if you want to write to a commercial formula, good luck–get an agent, tailor your ‘product’ to what’s selling and go for it! But it would be madness for me to try and make all my books like Gone Girl or Grey. That’s not to say that I’m going to be a tiny niche publisher either. I’ve got literary novels but I also have page turners. They might pitch to different readerships but they are all well written books and of course they are taken on with a commercial imperative in mind – it’s a business after all. So, yes, I am prepared to take risks. But I’m doing it because I happen to love those books [on my list] and believe there is a readership who will love them too (and pay for them!).
JE: Do you like editing?
MS: I love it and I loathe it. Some writers seem almost upset that I don’t want to hack their work to pieces. I think they forget the author is the writer. But if I’ve selected it to invest in in the first place…
JE: …It’s because you think it’s ready to go. Are independent publishers the only ones who are still prepared to take a risk on new talent?
MS: Why does anybody think that indie publishers have been dominating all the awards lists lately? Because they are still innovating, still investing in new writing. After all, new writers are the industry’s life blood. Otherwise the future vanishes. That is to say…the book world will be a pretty dull place. Frankly, I’m quite happy that the big publishers and agents want to stick to their pigeon holes, it’s giving the rest of us the opportunity to engage with some incredible writing talent. And readers are smart, engaged and knowledgeable – they don’t always make their choices because a book is 99p and has stars ticked on Amazon.
JE: You’ve managed to get books into Waterstones and WHSmiths, but how easy is it, generally speaking, for an indie publisher to get books into the major bookshops? And how much does it matter, if you’re selling well via Amazon?
MS: There is still a cachet and profile attached to having your book in a large bookshop for both the author and publisher. It’s also about discoverability. We currently have three Urbane titles in WHS Travel stores (places like Heathrow, Gatwick, Victoria) and I’m thrilled about that. But, for an indie publisher, sales through bookshops won’t often dominate. It’s as much if not more about sales via Amazon, and most importantly via events. I will happily drive down to an entrepreneurial independent bookshop in Cornwall (or wherever) with a box of books and split the profits with the bookstore so we both benefit. And this is often better for the author – they meet an engaged audience and build a community. We don’t always have to do things ‘traditionally’. Having said that …we are gradually making headway with some writers, so the major bookstores risk averse attitude toward us is falling away…This helps everybody. And these writers and successes allow us to invest in new talent, to innovate.
JE: What form do you think that future books might take? E-books, immersive narrative apps, printed books with beautiful covers, something else again? And is there room for it all? Will we end up with even more reading tribes?
MS: You’ll hear some people say that ebooks are the spawn of the devil. But if we panic about the death of print then we are not listening to the reader. Print never went anywhere. But it is about giving the reader a choice. I’ll take a kindle on holiday, for convenience. But I still buy plenty of print books. People might for example read thrillers on a kindle but they’re more likely to read poetry or non-fiction in print.
Having said that, one of the most successful apps in publishing history was Faber’s which had many famous actors reading T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.
JE: Don’t tell me…It drove sales of the print books?
MS: It made a healthy profit in its own right, but yes, absolutely, it did not stop people from buying the paperbacks!
JE: Two quick final questions, if I may. You’ve spent your adult life dedicated to books, essentially. What was the first book you ever read that felt like being struck by lightning?
MS: William Golding’s The Spire. I read it as a teenager. I try to read it again every year and, of course, there are things that I hate about it now. But that book haunted me.
JE: I think we all have a book like that. What books do you have on your bedside table?
MS: Stephen King’s latest short story collection. And of course … I live in Rochester.
JE: Dickens’s country…
MS: So there are several Dickens…
JE: … Knocking over the lamp.
Thanks so much for talking to The Woven Tale Press, Matthew.