Meet Wet Zebra, The X-Factor for independent authors

Meet Wet Zebra, The X-Factor for independent authors

If Wet Zebra authors get 1,000 votes from the reading public, their book gets published. But is this crowdsourced utopia or a risky slide into lowest common denominator copy-cats?

The pitch

Wet Zebra is "21st Century publishing with a twist" where the readers are the commissioning editors. They're mainly e-publishers, with occasional sorties into physical books, and the twist is that writers’ followers determine who gets published. One thousand votes mean they’ll take a text, edit and publish (always in e-book, sometimes in physical format).

The team

In a word, heavyweight.

Editor and co-founder Martin Baker is a former lawyer and journalist, turned author and publisher. He published the business bestseller A Fool And His Money (Orion), and is working on the third in a trilogy of financial thrillers; the first of which, Meltdown, led Pan Macmillan’s 2008 fiction list and has now sold 50,000 copies worldwide. Baker is supported by deputy editor Naomi Pyburn, a Cambridge English graduate and "self-confessed book freak".

Co-founder and publisher Paul English has owned and run businesses across the book industry. He became the largest management shareholder of wholesaler Bertram's in 2000, was also Managing Director of the library supplier Cypher and founded an online academic book retailing business in 50/50 partnership with UCAS. 

Marketing and digital influence director Shaun Fagan, principal of Black Dog New Media, completes the core team, along with designers and IT partners at Alpine Interactive.

Non-execs include Professor Graham Richards of Oxford University, Martin Gilbert of Aberdeen Asset Management (and owner of what used to be Peters Fraser Dunlop) and entrepreneur Nicola Horlick.

The Wet Zebra team

What's the gap in the market?

Move over crowdfunding; Wet Zebra team that crowd-commissioning is the way forward. 

"We’re about tapping potential – literary and commercial", Baker explains. "The idea is to solve the Hollywood producer’s dilemma: What does the viewer (reader in our case) want? Rocky 17? Maybe… But we hope to avoid that conservative, anti-creative, risk-averse approach. Wet Zebra can and does put up diverse submissions to the editorial committee (the voting crowd, remember) and once they’ve got the requisite number of votes, that’s as good an indicator as we could hope for that people want to read what’s being written."

Depending on your faith in the reading public, this could be either thrilling or a swift slide into lowest common denominator publishing. There are, however, some controls. "Submissions can be off-the-wall," Baker admits, "but we insist on no sexism, homophobia, racism, incitement to hatred, etc – even in a post-truth world." 

Success so far?

It’s still early days, but Wet Zebra's base of voters and readers is growing fast, and nearing the 10,000 mark. "The 1,000 vote publishing threshold is deliberately set quite high," Baker insists; "it means it’s not just friends and family, but followers and interested readers. As writers complete their texts they can build a following. In that sense, we’re a high-tech revisiting of Victorian-style instalment publishing."

The talent looks promising so far. Award-wining historian and film-maker Jim Ring has been lured from Faber for a debut novel, a "historical fantasy thriller" called Queen’s Ransom, which is "attracting interest from Hollywood and the US book market." Paolo Hewitt, an award-winning author in music, fashion and football, is currently completing an "exquisite letter of advice and paternal love to his late-arriving, first-born son, Rafi," due out before before summer.

Biggest challenges?

Brand distinction and awareness. "Wet Zebra is good for name recognition and a key part of the brand," Baker explains. "But some people confuse us with self-publishing. We’re nothing like that: we’re mainstream publishers with a democratic mechanism at the heart of the editorial committee."

Ultimate ambition?

The team is obviously having a lot of fun, and their personal passion for books shines through. "We want to tap potential talent, empower writers and readers alike, launch some new writers, energise established ones, and make our model mainstream," Baker says. "Oh, and monogrammed silk bed sheets and world domination. Failing that, unlimited supplies of chocolate will do."

Advice to other publishing entrepreneurs?

"Keep your eyes fixed on the long-term objective, but don’t miss collateral opportunities. For example, we started as a pure e-book play, but saw the demand for physical books at our pop-up literary festivals (aka book slams). So we’ve developed a good relationship with printers that allows us to do small-volume print runs."