Don’t be fooled by their youth: twenty-somethings Sapere publishing director Amy Durant, marketing director Caoimhe O’Brien and operations director Richard Simpson are armed with a wealth of experience. The trio met at (recently liquidated) Endeavour Press, a small publisher known for pushing out digital titles at high volume, where they quickly ascended into senior roles. Introduced to the e-book market at a time when Amazon was establishing its dominance, the trio have founded a list of their own which they hope will make the most of the e-tailer’s considerable clout.
Sticking mostly to fiction (in particular historical, crime and women’s fiction), Sapere aims to publish a combination of backlist titles, continued series from established authors, and débuts. It formally launched last week (1st March) with 80 titles, among them books from several estates, including that of "cosy crime" author Elizabeth Lemarchand, after striking a deal for 17 of her books. It also signed Linda Stratmann, who, since her publisher The History Press opted to cut its fiction output, is publishing her Scarletti Mystery series with Sapere.
Asked about the scale of the press’ ambition, Simpson says: "We have targets, but they keep going out the window because we keep going past them." The original goal had been to sign 10 authors, but since knuckling down last summer it has managed to deliver 25, more than enough to satisfy its first-year release schedule. "Because some publishers are cutting down on what they are publishing, and are taking fewer risks, authors and agents are looking for new options," says Durant. "We thought agents would be more cautious because we’re a new company, but many knew us already and were impressed by our marketing plans."
L-R Sapere founders Caoimhe O’Brien, Richard Simpson and Amy Durant
While agents and authors may come flocking, Sapere is restricting itself to a release schedule of between four and eight titles per month, in stark contrast to the team’s former employer, which at one time published 100 monthly. The logic, Durant stresses, is author care. "The idea is not to overstretch ourselves," she says. "We want to make sure each book and each author gets a lot of attention. Particularly for débuts, we want marketing campaigns that are tailored for each author."
O’Brien, who is spearheading the marketing, is relishing the chance to give each book its own marketing time, backed by "a lot" of paid advertising. The press runs a tight ship, working remotely and eschewing print runs for print-on-demand to limit overheads, precisely so it can reinvest its profits into building its authors. Sapere’s database of reviewers has now topped 200 "and is growing all the time", says O’Brien. And, importantly, the press is willing to try different things out. "If I read something online and I want to try it, the team is really happy for me to give it a go. It’s important to have that flexibility," she says.
Small but nimble
It’s evident Sapere is ready to use its small size to its advantage, with such flexibility also applying to its pricing. Simpson explains the outfit is prepared to review its strategy "every couple of months" to respond to changes in the market, which it is "constantly monitoring". "There is a lot of resistance from some of the big publishers to drop prices. Then some others potentially keep their prices too low for too long," Durant adds. "It’s trying to find the optimum price point for each genre and each book."
Another key element to Sapere’s strategy is that its titles are only available through Amazon. Although it may change direction "if there’s an incentive to go elsewhere", the team maintains that its sales "are going to be so much stronger" with Amazon exclusivity. "People hate giving Amazon any kind of credit, but it is good at what it does," says Durant. "With thousands of e-books published every day, being visible on any platform is hard. You need something to be able to do that, and Amazon offers a lot of tools that other platforms don’t."
These include its Kindle Countdown Deals, but the real bonus, according to Sapere, is that if a publisher is Amazon-exclusive, it is enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, the borrowing service that enables readers to access as many books as they like for £7.99 a month. Sapere pays a 50% royalty rate, but for many of its authors the income from "borrows" can be "as much, or even higher, than the income they receive for traditional sales". Revenue generated from borrows is increasing month-on-month, the team explains, as evidenced by the growth of Amazon’s KDP Global Fund, a pot of money with which all participating authors are paid per page read. It began at $2.5m when the service launched in July 2014, and as of December 2017 it stood at $19.9m.
"It’s a different world; the strategy is different," concedes Simpson of digital publishing, including the press’ preference for "year-round" sales over any summer hit. Durant says: "If we can get our books selling a thousand copies per month plus ‘borrows’, that will be great. We’re constantly experimenting with these different marketing strategies so hopefully those will get more refined, and the sales will be better and better for our authors. We want it to be a good experience for them, and for our readers."