Eight lessons for publishing start-ups

Eight lessons for publishing start-ups

A year on from its launch, September Publishing has published four non-fiction titles, sold nearly 10,000 books and commissioned new titles well into 2018. Founder Hannah MacDonald offers eight essential learnings from its first year.

1. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a good instinct from a personal obsession.

We started out with a mantra of quality, change and collaboration, and key to this was a desire to draw up a new contract that reflected reality. I became obsessed with this. Law outfit Maier Blackburn was hired for its experience with authors and estates (there is nothing like death to highlight the financial complications in life). Early on, as

I waxed lyrical about a contract only two pages long that broke with history and cut to the chase, firm partner Cathleen Blackburn asked whether I would like to spend my time publishing good books or trying to persuade people to accept a weird-looking contract.

So we compromised. A traditional-looking format, its terms constructed with the Soci- ety of Authors’ input, but with clauses and language that emphasised author involve- ment. We have pushed further on expecta- tions of our authors to sell, market and self- publicise. In exchange, we have raised the upper royalty escalations. Our authors work hard, so success should be better shared.

2. The instincts that were the clearest and simplest have worked the best.

We wanted a stable of authors with whom we could actually work collaboratively to sell books continuously. Hence our authors tend to have a voice outside of the pages—and aren’t afraid to use it.

Social media only works for certain authors and readers. For us it has been about commissioning people who can teach, talk or reach into known communities. For one of our authors (Mark Thomas) it is about gigs and tweets; for others it’s about Etsy; for another it’s about art workshops; for some- one else it’s about an international network of geologists. But for some it is still about the impactful review or author endorsement.

3. Ruthless prioritisation early on during a project saves time and money.

Before making decisions I now ask myself: “Is it any more likely to result in an engaged reader?” If not, I have learnt to shelve it. Just because something extra can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be.

It takes a huge number of man-hours to genuinely deliver something new within the technical restrictions of e-books and where we have tinkered, it hasn’t always helped. Yet we wanted to innovate digitally, to find new ways to take beautifully published digital material to market. However, I have found that apps cost more and are harder to sell than they were four years ago, and the limitations of e-books still make it complicated to render some of our illus- trated books even pleasant to read. We are in discussions about working out of the book—and the box. For us, when technical innovation comes, it will be about finding a new channel, i.e. a different container and platform, through which to market and sell long-form writing.

For instance, I still want to find a way to use NFC (near field communication) technology better. However, at September we are just as interested in innovating in the way we communicate with readers and in reconsid- ering when we do it (author Charlotte Cole’s post on our Facebook page about her experience copyediting a new book got more shares and Twitter traction than any of our other posts this month).

4. Cashflow is everything for a small business. But it can also be critical for authors.

We wanted to be economic: free of unneces- sary costs so we could publish in response to quality and our publishing instincts— not forced to double, then triple, our title count just to feed overheads taken on before we could justify them. We have managed much—a whole launch list created from the same sum I once spent on a single corporate brainstorming weekend. We have enjoyed much support from freelances and suppli- ers who have charged us considerately, in order to support a new independent. And I am embarrassed to admit I even took public transport at Frankfurt for the first time last year. (An anecdotal straw poll has, however, reassured me that I was far from alone in such past extravagance.)

We also wanted to reconsider the royalty statement and calendar, and this is indeed under way. My discussions with authors and agents have been as much about how to pay as what to pay. Flexibility is a negotiating point for us. We have just agreed our first deal, with the intention of paying royalties more than twice a year. I would like this to become standard. We have also sought advice from agents on how to design and structure our new royalty statements.

5. Don’t be sidetracked into trying to give your company the attributes you wish you had.

I also wanted a catalogue that was so cool it was like a hipster zine that would be displayed on the counters of independent bookshops and passed among friends… This was a stupid idea. I take full responsibility. Where the time to do it was to come from—or the coolness—I have no idea.

6. The independent publishing community is thrifty, thriving and supportive.

Turnaround Publishing Services has opened up new markets and vistas for us. But even on an ordinary day, remote working poses challenges. Not everyone’s confidence and morale can stick it and regular interaction is essential. Luckily, my four September colleagues also work remotely. They are less likely to be stuck in a meeting and more likely to be available for a chat than most office-bound publishers. Also, there has been a real shift in affordable workspaces so there are options for the future there too.

7. Working alone is a challenge. (It’s not ideal in times of crisis or bereavement, either.)

In The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here, Lynda Gratton writes of the essentials of the modern workplace. Alongside the skills required to work and manage remotely, she places huge emphasis on the importance of a support network, a posse of entrenched professional friends who will unquestioningly turn their minds and energy to help wherever it is needed.

We have benefited from supporters from the beginning—agents willing to experiment and advise, printers prepared to extend terms, freelance editors keen to see the list work, old colleagues happy to give creative feedback. But when I found myself caught in three months of critical familial hospital visits and illnesses, I needed more: a close team to take over projects as well as a wider posse to offer support . . . and lug boxes around at launch parties.

8. A good intern is transformative; take the time to plan, prepare and develop such talent.

We have tried to be good employers to the wider freelance community, but what I have been struck by is how much we have needed and benefited from the raw energy, cultural and technological perspectives, and sheer willingness of a couple of recent graduates. While we cannot pay much, we try to give them an interesting stay and a proper sense of how their work and projects fit into the larger process and industry as a whole.

If there is a theme, it’s that the people we work with—authors, colleagues, freelances, Turnaround, co-publishers in large print or US editions—are September’s most precious commodity. To publish better than the rest, to give an author’s most precious commodity (their book) the best chance, we need terrific people. So we would love to hear from anyone who is interested in working with us, from freelance editors to marketeers, from interns to commissioning editors in other areas. Get in touch by emailing info@septemberpublishing.org.

MacDonald will be on the Writing the future: author-centric publishing panel at the FutureBook Conference on 4th December at The Mermaid in London. For more information or to book click here.