Startup of the week: Blackbird

Startup of the week: Blackbird

Meet the noisy little bird hoping to spread #authorpower across the UK.

The pitch

Blackbird Books claims to "quite possibly" be the first digital-only publisher in the UK, launching in 2009 by publishing PDFs from its website and Kindle books in the US, before adding paperbacks to their offering in 2015.  It aims to launch sustainable careers with 50/50 "#authorpower" contracts built around flexibility, freedom and trust, including ongoing promotion, monthly royalty reports and pay. 

Who's the team behind it?

Blackbird was founded by Stephanie Zia, an author, journalist and BBC documentary director, when she decided to self-publish a collection of her Guardian columns. A reader of her blog, the ex-Transworld author Susie Kelly, then got in touch and Zia went on to e-publish eight of Kelly's books, while other authors came on board. 

Zia at London Book Fair

"We began from scratch on a zero budget," Zia says "There are no offices or full-time staff. Our team is the authors themselves and, in true start-up fashion, freelancers and interns. Innovative digital marketing is a big part of what we do but our authors don’t have to be digitally-minded themselves.

"We have one author, in his 70s, who lives on a Greek island and works on a typewriter. Another who hates social media but connects with reviewers, literary festivals and bookstores by email. She does the research and writes the pitch emails for us to send on as the publisher. We just did a book promotion tour in Ukraine this way. Our most recent intern became our Commissioning Editor on a royalty basis and almost immediately struck gold with debut psychological thriller author S. E. Lynes. We are in talks with an agent about the exploitation of residual rights for all of our authors."

What's the gap in the market?

In 2009, Blackbird was perfectly positioned to exploit the gap between digital publishing and UK print publishing, working almost exclusively in the US, marketing on US blogs and selling on US Amazon. With that gap narrowing ever since, the company has had to refine its approach.

"We used to have the edge on US digital marketing methods, like Bookbub," Zia explains. "Now we have to compete with the big guys to try and get our books featured. The good news is that author-centric publishing is the way it’s heading. With the rise of Instagram star reader accounts with tens of thousands of followers and Facebook groups like The Book Club, with thousands of passionate readers, we’re getting more word-of-mouth reader feedback leading directly to sales. The buzz about new books isn’t, any more, wholly controlled by the size of the publisher’s marketing and distribution budget."

Success so far?

Two Blackbird authors, Susie Kelly and Diana Morgan-Hill, are in the US Amazon Top 100, Paid, and Kelly has just hit #6 in Australia’s top 100 Paid as well. Major mainstream press coverage for Morgan-Hill included a Daily Mail spread, a nomination for 2015 Woman of the Year and appearances on Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show and ITV’s This Morning. And Blackbird author Diane Chandler recently won The People's Book Prize for her novel Road to Donetsk

"In August we have our first glossy women’s magazine fiction review for debut novelist S. E. Lynes," Zia adds. "The first title with our new Imprint, Nightingale Editions, is launching this autumn. Two of our mid-list authors rejecting invitations to re-publish with their mainstream ex-publishers and choosing to stay with Blackbird has to be the best accolade of all. The Blackbird team is starting to feel like a real family."

Editor Rosalie Love with author S.E. Lyons

Biggest challenges?

"Paperback distribution to bookstores."

Ultimate Ambition?

Zia hopes that Blackbird will inspire a whole movement of other #authorpower startups. "I saw a tweet the other day from Rachael Lucas which said 'Writing books: 95% lurking alone in a dressing gown, 5% standing on a table shouting LOOK AT ME'," she reports. "As an ex-author myself, I know that is so true. I’d like to see more small publishing platforms like ours that promote outstanding authors over the long-term, giving them the digital and mainstream marketing exposure and the confidence to write their second, third and fourth books that might be needed before a breakthrough."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Be flexible. Things can, and do, change overnight. Amazon’s sudden introduction of US KU in 2014 nearly sank us for good. We moved on to print and a different kind of progress, but it was a terrible moment."