Publishing Day Interview: Urbane Publications Matthew Smith

In the coming weeks, we will be interviewing the panel from this year’s Publishing Day on 11th May 2019: Urbane Publications Director Matthew Smith, Bookouture Associate Publisher Kathryn Taussig, Literary Agent Katharine Sands, LIterary Agent Greg Messina, and Author Victoria Brownlee.

This time we caught up with Urbane Publications Director Matthew Smith.

In previous interviews, you have mentioned that Urbane Publishing is different from other publishing agencies because it is based upon Relationships. What would you say is the most difficult aspect of maintaining a sense of harmony between all different parties involved in the publishing of a book? 

This is such a good question and frankly my answer could run into pages as it touches on so many aspects of the publishing industry, both good and bad. The absolute truth is we will never keep everyone happy – there will always be an author who thinks we should have done more to sell more books, or a retailer who wants ever-higher discounts or stock earlier. But Urbane was started from a desire to create a genuinely collaborative publishing experience, where we work with authors (rather than assuming they work for us!) and develop joint goals for each project. It isn’t always easy and there are plenty of days where I have to remind certain authors and partners that I don’t work for them but with them (even though it’s Urbane doing the investing!!), but on the whole it genuinely allows us to work in an open, proactive and positive way to drive success for each title we publish in a bespoke way. There are a huge amount of assumptions about publishing, about how it works, how books are commissioned and created and sold, and we tend to be very honest about how tough the realities are. But the upside is that those authors who ‘get it’ and engage with us positively and with their readers are the ones who are successful.

In a world that favours fast, immediate gratification, would you say that Urbane Publishing has a more organic quality to its methodology? 

We all face an interesting challenge in publishing, and not simply because there are so many books out there, all vying for attention. When I first started in the industry it was beautifully simple – we developed a book, published it in one format, and it sold in one channel (bookshops). Coverage appeared in newspapers and other relevant media, we knew where readers were and how to market directly to them. That has of course changed significantly, not so much because readers want easy to digest, concise content, but because – as you  point out – they can choose to get content immediately, when they need it and often at a very competitive price. I suspect we have as an industry responded to these changes – the growth of ebook publishing and digital formats, Amazon dominance, myriad forms of marketing, self-publishing, the buying power of the ‘big’ publishers etc – in a reactive rather than an organic way, but our aim is to ultimately become wholly proactive. This demands an entrepreneurial approach rather than just doing what we’ve always done, being willing to find new ways to develop and deliver content, build new relationships with sales channels, locally as well as internationally, and of course (as noted above) work collaboratively with authors to achieve shared goals. This isn’t easy – and I could write pages on why that’s the case – but we’re getting there!

What are some of the books that have made you want to be a publisher and why? Does this differ from what you like to read in your own time? 

Originally I had no specific desire to publish books, just be involved with them somehow. Eventually I was lucky enough that my career evolved down a commissioning route ie I was the one who got to choose and suggest what titles were published. Much of my focus was on non-fiction, academic and professional, but I had a desire to publish fiction, primarily because I enjoyed reading it so much. I read very, very broadly (2-3 books a week if possible) and only for pleasure – I’m quite good at separating the two. Though there’s nothing better than commissioning a book that I feel will work commercially for Urbane but that I also love to read personally. There are authors I wish I’d published, simply because I admire their writing. And one day I’d love to have a few books on the list that are simply beautiful books to own.

You worked in Waterstones bookstore as a Department Manager and as a commissioning editor (among other roles) in the ‘big five’ publishing companies. Now as Publishing Director for an Independent Publisher, you have unique experience in all spheres of the industry. What do you think is the future of publishing and struggling traditional bookshops? 

A very, very big question, and one I’m not arrogant enough to think I can answer, but I’ve got a few thoughts that may provoke further, positive discussion:

– big companies will always dominate and marquee names will always get coverage and sell, and sell first, particularly in traditional channels such as bookshops. Money talks I’m afraid – no shock there – but there is hope for smaller publishers and ‘unknown’ authors as they find new ways of creating discoverability and profile. We are very lucky in that people will always want to read and they love books – thank goodness for that!  We always hear of trends – such as the growth of audiobooks for example, or the new interest in true crime. Trouble is I’ve been around long enough to remember when they were previously trends as well!

– there is a gradual movement back towards well-written, unique, original fiction as readers become tired of the same old ‘person under threat, here’s the signposted twist’ thrillers that dominate both Amazon and key retailers such as WHSmith. Readers are a smart bunch, and I think publishers have been in danger of underestimating their ability to make choices about trying new authors and new genres.

– linked to the above I also think readers are very perceptive now about being ‘manipulated’ in any way, particularly through reviews or social media campaigns. Note the very recent backlash when JK Rowling tried to suggest certain characters had always been written with particularly topical backstories in place Readers immediately called her on it, and very critically.

– I keep hearing people say ‘print is back’, but it never went away, we just had to learn to sell printed editions in different channels (we sell many non-fiction books direct for example) and be realistic about how much we could sell in certain genres. There is still growth to be had and readers will buy hard copy editions of books they love

– it is clear that independent bookshops are under threat for many reasons, from the competition of online retailers and ebooks to the dominance of two ‘chains’ in the UK who can – and do –  demand the best deals. But as in all businesses, the best independents are entrepreneurial, know their market, engage with customers – and publishers! –  and are brave enough to rail against the risk-averse nature of the industry as a whole. We sell many more copies of particular titles with independents because they are brave, bold and knowledgeable and pick their shots rather than just selling what they’re told to. We need indies, but goodness knows it must be an incredibly tough business, But there are clear examples of shops that are making it work because they constantly build and engage with a growing customer base by genuinely offering what those customers want.

You have hinted that you might write a book one day. Have you something in mind and if you do write one, do you think your experience in the industry will help prepare you for being on the receiving end of critique, etc.?

Actually I have written a few books out of necessity when I was a packager (more on that another time) but I haven’t completed the book I want to write (a semi-fictional biography of my grandfather). To be honest, my experience of the industry means that if that book is written and published I’ll be thrilled and amazed if it receives any critique at all, good or bad!! And if I do publish it may well be through a self-published route, which opens up a whole different set of questions and conversation. It certainly wouldn’t be published through Urbane – there are thousands of brilliantly talented authors whose words deserve to be read before mine.

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