Canelo makes its move: A launch-day Q&A

Canelo makes its move: A launch-day Q&A

A tweet from @Canelo_Co this morning (13th July): "So much interest in the website today we're having to upgrade the server!" It's the Canelic Arrival of the new digital press created by three familiar players in the UK market, publishing director Michael Bhaskar, m.d. Iain Millar, and technology director Nick Barreto. The fledgling company's first three titles release today, the work of authors John Gapper, Chris Lloyd, and Martin Davies. Writing about the new effort in January, my Bookseller colleague Philip Jones wrote, "Canelo arrives at a perfect time for a market that needs a venture that can combine the talents from the old world with a vision for the new one."  Authors will note that Canelo has broken with tradition to offer royalties of 50 to 60 percent of net receipts — and only on five-year licenses. Thus Canelo is immediately responsive to new calls for author contract reform from the Society of Authors and the Authors Guild. — Porter Anderson

The FutureBook: What is Canelo? .

Michael Bhaskar: We are a publisher. It’s that simple. We care about writing and stories and want to take them to the widest possible audience.

The FutureBook: Why is it named Canelo? 

Iain Millar: We keep meaning to make up a convincing story for this, as we get asked a lot. All the good publisher bird names were taken, anything with a digital reference sounded a bit '90s, I’m not an expert on Greek myths, and we just liked the sound of Canelo. I’ve just looked back at the alternatives, and we definitely chose the best option.

The FutureBook: What does being an avowed "digital publisher" mean in terms of format?

Iain Millar: You can be devoted to ebooks without being anti-print, just as you can be devoted to print without being anti-ebook. But I think what we’re implying is that our ebooks are of "print quality" (i.e. a higher quality than ‘just ebook’). We firmly believe that all ebooks should be of "print quality" – the standard of design, of editing, of the production, shouldn’t be any lower just because it is in a digital format.

We’d only commit to print editions if we were satisfied (a) that they wouldn’t compromise the digital element and (b) if it was the best option for our authors – that the books would be produced, distributed and marketed with real passion, skill and commitment. It would be very easy for us to produce mediocre POD editions and to make them available through a few retailers, but I think that would be doing our writers a disservice. Print is a definite possibility, but when we do it, it will be done right, and that most likely entails finding a partner with expertise and scale.

'Ebooks are where the action is'

The FutureBook: In your Medium piece on the topic, you made the point that ebooks can be and often are the main event. But what I think we're all looking to see is, okay then how do you do that?

Michael Bhaskar: The point was, ebooks are often overlooked or play second fiddle to the print edition. While I can sometimes understand that, for many genres it doesn’t make sense. Ebooks are where the action is. As Iain says, some ebook production doesn’t live up to the print versions – but if people are paying for a product, it should be excellent. As a digital publisher it’s not hard to make the ebook the main event – it is the event! What matters above all is the quality of the publishing and what the reader wants. That should come across in everything we do.

So the format comes second to thinking about editorial work on a book, making a file that reads beautifully, thinking through the cover and the marketing. All that stuff – the substance of publishing – is central regardless of whether a book is an ebook or a print book. We have a powerful and customised marketing offer – building websites and guaranteeing search and social ad spend for example.

The FutureBook: Relative to that question, as these three books go into play, do they each have a website? 

Nick Barreto: They do indeed. Or will, rather, as we’re just putting the finishing touches to them. All the code is in place for us to have a website very quickly for anything we want, but the design needs a little more finesse, and every site is bespoke to a degree. We’re nearly there, so you should see these go live very soon. And more sites coming as the books come out.

Our website’s setup is very flexible, an open-source Django CMS built by the lovely people of Torchbox in Oxford, which I have been working on bending to our needs.

The FutureBook: For the Martin Davies book, there's a 2004 paperback edition sometimes spotted. No connection to Canelo's release? 

Michael Bhaskar: That’s an old American out-of-print version being sold second hand...Our edition is much nicer and has been substantially reworked and totally re-edited. To our knowledge it will be the first time it is available in most countries. On the plus side, [the old print version] does mean that there were several reviews already, and even before it is available, Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse has a 4.5 average star rating.

'Something we are uniquely placed to do' 

The FutureBook: It looks as if Ballantine has been out with a print edition of the John Gapper book, The Ghost Shift, since January. So there, you have a print copy in place, albeit from another house, to bolster the ebook, right? Is this a Canelic tactic, going out with the e-version of something that has a p-version as a pedestal?

Nick Barreto: I wouldn’t call it a tactic as such, but it is something we are uniquely placed to do. Next month we are releasing a title we just acquired which is making waves in the US, and a big part of that acquisition is that we can have it available much faster than a more traditional publisher. That means we can build on the existing buzz that the book has, and hopefully grow it to be a worldwide hit.

Iain Millar: We’re perfectly happy to do the ebook edition of a book with another publisher doing the print edition. It is the print publisher who would have a problem with that arrangement, for the most part. But say if you’re a publisher without much of a sales/marketing operation in the UK, we can certainly popularise the work in ebook here, and the chances are you’ll then sell more print copies.

The FutureBook: Of these three, lots of mystery/crime. Is that always to be the Canelic focus, or just coincidence?

Michael Bhaskar: To some extent it’s coincidence. We have psychological suspense novels, sagas, science fiction, military thrillers, YA, romance and more. The thread is commercial and genre fiction, the heart of what sells in digital format. But we are not limited to that – we’ve got some more ‘literary’ novels and some non-fiction, like a series of short business guides. We are publishing the backlist of the journalist and writer Miles Kington for example. That said, we love crime and mystery and always plan to publish a lot of it.

The FutureBook: I know that you've also spoken of the good sense of series, Michael. Is that aspect in play with any of this first trio?

Michael Bhaskar: Two of our first three books are series. City of Good Death is the first Elisenda Domènech Investigation, while Mrs Hudson and the Spirits’ Curse is the first Holmes and Hudson Mystery. We have contracted three books with both, so expect more to come. Series will play a big role in our publishing and we are always keen to chat to anyone who has them.

'Agents and authors have been so open'

The FutureBook: What's proving to be the biggest surprise or challenge of getting Canelo off the ground? Can you find the content you want? When you do, do you find it in new authors or in people of background? Based on these first three books, it looks to me like the latter.

Iain Millar: The biggest surprise, and indeed the highlight of Canelo to date, has been the quality of the books and authors we’ve been trusted with, acquired. Without being falsely modest, we are really thrilled that agents and authors have been so open to working with a digital publisher, and that our offer has had the reception it has. Our business model is different [including that 50-to-60-percent net receipts royalty structure and five-year terms], which gives some pause for thought. But generally there’s even more good writing out there than we thought there would be, and we have a good chance of being its publisher.

The biggest challenge, and related to that, is turning some books down. There are books that we love that we’ve had to pass on, because they’re not quite right for the market, or because we weren’t convinced we were best placed to publish them. If we think a book needs a hardback release to generate a certain type of review, for example, we’ll say so, albeit a bit begrudgingly. That’s difficult.

Also we’d love to find more backlist authors, estates to work with. Some agencies are publishing those themselves, with mixed results, while a lot of authors were signed by publishers several years ago and maybe haven’t seen the success they deserve. We’d like to find and publish more quality reissues.

The FutureBook: And what has gone precisely as you predicted?

Iain Millar: Well, we’re all still getting on, so that’s good. The intensity of a start-up, and the stress and the excitement is exactly as you’d expect, or fear.

Nick Barreto: Getting to make your own systems, workflows, having the power to decide exactly what tools we want to use and designing the whole system from the ground up has been excellent.

The FutureBook: What is Canelo's consultancy offering?

Iain Millar: We’re working with a couple of publishers, with a university, and we’re in talks with academic publishers, with an app developer, tech companies, a literary agency, among others. Some of what we do is technical ebook production, digital publishing systems, metadata and so forth, but there’s plenty of people asking for advice on selling and marketing ebooks too.

The consultancy enables us to work in areas apart from Canelo’s publishing output – children’s books, journals and periodicals – and also on some big brand names. It’s important for us to continue collaborating, to keep in the loop and to meet new people, whether they be from a small start-up or a major international group. However we are always careful not to take on too much as we don’t want it to distract from the central work of publishing.

'It's going to get a lot more digital, for sure!'

The FutureBook: How adventurous in techno terms is Canelo? – ebooks we know, but are you thinking also of going farther in the digital pasture toward apps development / networked book experiments, etc. In short: How digital is this going to get?

Nick Barreto: It’s going to get a lot more digital, for sure! At the moment we’re already very different from a more traditional publisher, but it’s all in the stuff you can’t see. All the work we do is on the cloud, we have various open-source systems we’re using: the CMS that runs our website; the application that runs on the raspberry pi that controls our book scanner; cloud-based systems for bibliographic data and the book-based CMS we use to produce our ebooks.

The next step is going to be to have everything talking to each other using the appropriate APIs so that information moves from one system to another seamlessly, without anyone needing to copy any information across manually. But on top of that we’ll definitely start seeing more digital products, which is more what I think you’re asking about: apps and the like which we will be producing and publishing, that don’t necessarily fit into what we think of as a "book."

The FutureBook: When do we see more titles announced and how can the industry expect to engage with Canelo? Do you envision D2C? Or will "I Want This" [as a button on the website has it] continue to take us to the major retailers?

Michael Bhaskar: More titles will be announced shortly. We have another burst of publishing at the end of July/beginning of August. There are some absolutely brilliant books on the way – Shadow Banking by C.M. Albright and The Lies We Tell by Meg Carter for example.

As for the sales, the website will sell direct as well as sending people to retailers. The only reason D2C has not been activated to date is that we don’t have the capability (yet) for pre-orders through our own site, so we have to wait for publication. We want our books to be everywhere, all the retailers, in a browser from our site, on phones, on tablets. For the time being selling from the website is a great thing to offer, but working with the retailers will be the sales focus.

'Ambitious ideas for how things could work'

The FutureBook: When will you be able to say that we've witnessed the Canelic Era take root? A long way to go, I presume, to feeling you can turn off the lights at a decent hour and actually go home for an evening What's the signal of success you look for in something this ambitious?

Iain Millar: There will be many ebook publishers, just like there were many paperback publishers, but we want to be one of the leading digital houses, for sure, and for that to be recognised as something of significant value.

Michael Bhaskar: This year is only the beginning for Canelo. We have some huge and exciting plans for the future that, we think, will really shake things up. We want to carry on publishing incredible ebooks with dedication and flair. We want to be a digital publisher in the widest and fullest sense – publishing apps and web projects as well as ebooks. We want to expand and work internationally. And beyond that we have one or two ambitious ideas for how things could work…but you’ll have to watch this space.

Nick Barreto: As for success, if we can bring our authors to a wide readership and pay them good money, find, publish and build excellent books, and perhaps suggest a new deal for authors and a new way of publishing in the process, well, that will be success.

Canelo's Michael Bhaskar will be featured in a "Hug the Alien" session at Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, 15th October.