Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Virtual Coffee Interview with Matt Bradbeer

My virtual interview today is with Matt Bradbeer, book lover and co-founder of Autharium, an indie-publishing platform that brings authors and professionals from the publishing industry together. I love finding out about the alternatives in this thriving industry. Welcome, Matt.

What is the idea behind Autharium? What does it offer that other publishing routes do not?

We wanted to build a place where authors can go through the end-to-end process from manuscript to sales with the opportunity to work with other writers, book lovers and publishing professionals to maximise the potential of their work. Before we set out with Autharium we spoke to lots of authors, publishing types, booksellers and anyone else we thought would have a view. We asked them what they would think a good/useful/helpful way to approach things looks like.

It is clear that an author should be the Creative Director of their work because publishing and selling a book involves the input of many people, cover designer, friends, family, editor, distributor, retailer etc... In our case, we wanted the author to have the benefit of lots of people with experience, but the control over what they did with the input.

In practice this means that after uploading a manuscript an author can release all or part of it in draft, or as they write it, inviting community members to review and comment in-page on any device, anywhere. Because many of our community are publishing professionals both full time employed or freelance, our authors get some great input. Our in-house team is now a support function to the community, as more people have joined.

We wanted to make things as easy as possible for authors to perfect their work without worrying about managing royalties, reporting, tax and relationships with retailers/distributors.

We made sure we registered in the US so that the 30% withholding tax was not an issue for our authors. We employed the top legal firm in the UK for established publishers to ensure we started from an established legal position for our authors and ourselves.

We were the first place to do an in-page writer/editor/reader with contextual commenting from the community. We were the first to not require pre-formatting of a text before upload and even then, the first to allow full editing of a text post-upload.

Compared to a traditional publisher, we allow the author a lot of control over who they work with and what they want to say. We do not have a structural restriction on the number of books we can produce in a year. We distribute globally, most traditional publishers are restricted to territories. We do not take the rights to physical, film, merchandising or related rights, we work off a 5 year exclusive on the license to publish the eBook (traditional publishers tend to get length of copyright or longer). The author keeps 85% of net sales, a lot more than they would earn through traditional publishing.

Compared to a typical self-publishing route, we do not charge a fee up front, our income comes from sales, so we have a vested interest in the long term success of a book and author. Our distribution network includes partners who tend not to take self-published titles, so we reach further than a self-publisher would be able to.

We want to build something that adds value to an author in terms of association with our brand. In that sense we are more of a collaborative publisher. The author is not on their own and we have a vested interest in the future of their books. We are also about the people who help make books great, the editors, cover designers and marketeers, Autharium is a place for these guys too.

We are already seen by our authors and community as a 3rd way. The market is segmenting into three strands, self-publishing, traditional and indie. We are in the indie strand.

What does indie mean? An indie author is a Creative Director who is serious about the quality of their final output and is keen to engage a team of people to get it there. Historically this might have meant spending £1000s on a vanity or self-publishing route if a traditional contract is not in the offing. We have the platform and community in place to allow this to happen without the need for spending a lot of money or using a company that now has your money and therefore has no interest in how your book does.

In summary, less restrictive or draconian than a traditional publisher and easier to get into. More collaborative and involved than a self-publisher with a clear investment in the future of an author.

From an author's point of view, this sounds like the perfect publishing system - support and collaboration without having to give up control or a lot of money. You say many of your community are publishing professionals. What attracts publishers away from the traditional route to join Autharium?

The majority of the publishing professionals in our community are freelance, are currently, or were previously in the publishing industry, a real mixture. Given the recent shakeup of the traditional publishing industry, we are seeing a lot of skilled people out there looking to get involved in book projects. This is more about publishing individuals, rather than publishing companies. The attraction for these individuals depends on their background. They could be individuals who, for whatever reason, need to work from home, are part-time or work on a project by project basis and this offers a way to do this. We also have relationships with several universities and some of our community will be linked to the creative writing and publishing courses at these institutions looking to gain experience.

So if I join and want help with my book cover, for example, am I put in touch with book designers? Will they provide a cover or advice? Do they charge?

After you join up you can search for people who can help you with your book. The Autharium team also provide a lot of advice and support to our authors before and after they are published.

In this case, do a filter in the community page for a cover designer. You can then ask them directly. They may charge for this, it is up to you if you use them. We are going to significantly improve this area now we are coming out of Beta, so watch this space…

Interesting! So what is the future for Autharium?

The future for Autharium is defined largely by our authors and the community members.

Over the last year we have introduced new functionality responding to feedback from our community, requirements driven by changes in the market and also what we think would be cool to have. We also revised our publishing terms, general site terms and privacy policy to make them reflect our values and to reflect where things need to go in the market. We are an ever-evolving proposition, as the market moves and as Indie publishing matures, we can drive change and support the future needs of the market, whilst obviously maintaining our core values.

We are working on ways in which we can more formally ensure that those editors, proof-readers, marketeers and cover designers in our community have a long term relationship with a book or author and their success. There are a number of ways of making this happen, all of which we are discussing with our community to see which works best.

In the future we see Autharium continuing to be a place where an author can create a virtual publishing team from thousands of community members, in effect replicating the traditional publishing approach, but within an online environment and with complete control.

Will we move into physical publishing? Possibly, we get asked this all the time, but currently we are focused on eBooks and improving our platform. We have had several authors who used Autharium as a springboard to getting momentum and then sealing a traditional print deal off the back of their success with us.

We are very happy when this happens because it validates what the author has done with us and we would never stop an author from moving over to a traditional deal or take money off them for doing this, not really our thing. Traditional is still the best route for physical distribution in terms of breadth and consumer price.

You mentioned a 5 year exclusivity deal with your authors. Would you release an author from this if they were offered a traditional deal?

Yes, absolutely and we do this all the time. We are never going to get in the way of an author realizing a traditional publishing deal. We would never charge an author anything to revert their rights in this situation. Examples of us doing this would be Chantelle Atkins – we published three of her ebooks, she was offered a traditional deal for one of them and we reverted her rights immediately. We are really pleased for her.

We are revising our current publishing contract terms. This sort of scenario is something we want to cater for within the contract as well as reviewing the exclusivity period. We need to reflect our author’s requirements but also maintain a workable business model, so it is a balancing act.

Do you think self-publishing will become the norm for first-time authors?

I think we are already there to a large extent, but I think it will change.

Self-publishing is currently the only way for most first-time authors to ensure they get something out there in the first place, given 98% of submissions to a traditional publisher are rejected.

Also, I know that many authors still see a traditional publishing contract as the endgame, with self-publishing as a means to an end. Unfortunately I think this devalues authors who don’t want to go through a traditional publisher and perpetuates the stigma attached to self-publishing. This also detracts from the real value of the work that is created. Self-publishing is evolving and, as I said before, a distinct sub-set is coming to the fore in Indie.

As the reality of Indie authors (as distinct from self-published) grows we have a real alternative where the source of the stigma is removed and the question of curation is addressed.

Furthermore, many indie publishers and agents (some of whom we work with) are going digital first, removing the risks of the traditional model (advances, physical stock) and giving a viable alternative for authors. 
Self-publishing will continue to be the norm, but Indie publishing is the evolution of this and will offer strong hybrid option for first-time authors.

How do you think authors can protect themselves from publisher/distributor spats, such as the incident of Amazon removing IPG books from the Kindle over a pricing dispute?

The problem with Amazon is that for certain publishers and distributors of all stripes it accounts for 80-90% of their sales. Although, Amazon’s share of our sales are way below this level, so this may be true elsewhere. This is a structural issue with the market. Like any dominant force in an industry, they are in a good place, they can pick off publishers and distributors with ease when they act alone. Amazon know that, in the wake of the Agency agreement, any perceived collusion between multiple publishers/distributors to get Amazon to play ball will be met with legal action.

There is a second challenge between distributors and retailers. The recent Kobo / WH Smith incident is part of a wider recognition from the retail community that it is a bit like the Wild West out there when it comes to Self-Publishing.

So there are two problems; A monolithic retailer and a need for some curation or quality control.

For the first, an author needs to find a publishing route that minimises the risk posed by Amazon pulling books. So the broadest distribution possible. Amazon’s share is quickly falling for us as we broaden out and bring in new distribution partners. It is up to the publishing and distribution community to work on building up competitors to Amazon. Google Play is our fastest growing channel with a massive base of potential readers.

On the second challenge, I think this is trickier for self-published authors partly due to a historical bias against self-publishing and partly due to the inability of retailers to sort out what is good and what is not. If in doubt a retailer will go for what they know has been curated and worked upon by people with a long term vested interest in an author (largely traditional publishers). They could trawl the output of BookBaby, AuthorHouse, Smashwords, Wattpad etc... to find those books selling well, but they honestly do not have the resource to do this.

The rise of the Indie author is a good thing. As this segment grows it will bring with it an inherent understanding from retailers that these authors have the support of a structure similar in composition to a traditional publishing model, but much broader and with more opportunity for authors to express themselves.

I agree that broadening distribution and not allowing one body to have too large a hold on the market is good for both authors and readers. Tell us about how you got into publishing?

Personally, I got into publishing via bookselling. I ran Fopp’s eCommerce website and then ran Waterstones.com. I launched eBooks at Waterstones.com, the first UK retailer to do eBooks. The “eureka” moment for Autharium came about when I was at Waterstones, Simon Maylott (co-founder) and I discussed the state of the industry and the future rise of the eBook and saw a real gap in the market. I was constantly getting independent authors asking to be put on waterstones.com, but no sensible way existed to do this. We felt there must be a better way to help authors do this, in a way that retailers would buy into. This lead to the genesis of Autharium. Another key member of Autharium is Colin Adams, who is also on our Board of Directors. Colin is currently CFO/COO at Quercus Publishing, previously Group CFO at Bloomsbury Publishing. He has spent 20 years working for publishers and knows the industry really well.

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This has been really interesting, Matt. Thanks so much for taking the time for the interview. I can see indie-publishing developing standards for the self-publishing process. Good luck to Autharium.

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