A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
With an award for Small Publisher of the Year 2006, not to mention personally gracing various lists of successful business people under the age of 35 (the latest, still top secret, was recently alluded to on Snowbooks’ blog), Emma Barnes is used to accolades. Yet, despite these successes, she does not pretend that her personal income is in any way comparable to that of her former employment. But this, I discover, is not the point for this unconventional Managing Director.
In the first of Vulpes Libris’ series of interviews with small or independent publishers, Emma and I “chat” over Skypetype, one frozen November afternoon, about publishing, personal satisfaction and zombies…
Me: Hi Emma – just testing.
Emma: Roger wilko! You’re going to have to bear with me, my hands are so cold…
Me: Mine too! Ok. Let’s start with a bit of background etc. I read that your background was in business. I was wondering what lead you to form Snowbooks in the first place and why books in particular?
Emma: After working for companies in which nothing mattered for many years – and by that I mean nothing to enrich the soul, nothing of any importance to anyone, where days went by churning out PowerPoint slides (I was a management consultant) or forcing people to lower their cost prices (I was also a buyer for a large retailer) – I got heartily sick of it. And so…the idea formed in response to me thinking: what is the most meaningful thing I could do with my time and skills? I know about retail, and selling, and business, and books were the one ‘product’ area that mattered.
Me: So, what makes a Snowbooks book?
Emma: Short answer: books we love and know we can sell. Very well written, great cover, and if it’s non fiction in particular, very well edited and presented.
Me: You have said elsewhere you like to work with writers who get your ethos. What would you say is the Snowbooks’ ethos?
Emma: There is something that happens in big companies, where people invent this weird vernacular, where your job is about politicking (is that even a word? dunno) inside the business…It is incredibly wearing to don a mask all day, every day. In fact, I found myself becoming the person I was pretending to be.
So Snowbooks is all about the opposite – and I do think it’s really sad that we have been held up for commendation for working in a way that just fits with basic human values, like kindness, and friendliness, and being honest, and structuring roles in a way that makes us proud.
Me: Yes, you have said, “because my goals are less commercial than other publishers my tactics have to be more so”. I thought this was interesting. Can you explain further?
Emma: 1) We are fiercely commercial. Snowbooks is no use to anyone if we don’t stay in business, so our first priority is to sell sufficient books to make a return on our investment. If we go out of business, that would be a bit stupid.
2) However, we don’t want to be successful at any cost. We won’t shaft people, and we won’t act in a way that we’re not proud of. We want to have enjoyable, rewarding jobs, so we structure the business in a way that is best for our quality of job and best for the books, but not necessarily the most efficient way. We think that production line manufacturing – where one person does their particular specialism, then passes it down the line for the next person – is fine for making widgets but not fine for a creative industry like publishing.
Me: Which brings me beautifully to my next question!
Emma: Ha! It’s like we planned it!
Me: You famously have one project manager following a book from submitted manuscript to finished product: what are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?
Emma: We would rather have one person overseeing all the functions required to produce a book – cover design, marketing, editorial, PR, everything – because then they will take a pride in their work and, we hope, the end result will be more coherent.
The downsides are that you have to find very special people indeed. Not everyone can cope with the idea of being the cover designer as well as the PR person: but for those who like a wide, varied and challenging role, and who want to be craftsmen, creating something to be proud of, it beats any other job.
Me: There is a perception amongst some writers that most small publishers are not interested in commercial fiction. With thrillers, horror and zombie novels on your list, I suspect this isn’t the case with Snowbooks.
Emma: Jeez! Really? I have to say, sometimes I have conversations with other small publishers and it amazes me how they stay in business.
Me: They obviously haven’t clocked onto the lucrative zombie market yet!
Emma: Ha! You can be interested in a particular area which is historically uncommercial, but approach it commercially. Take Salt Publishing for instance – bloody marvellous company, utterly fixated on sales and making a commercial success of the business, but doing it in the first place because they love poetry.
Me: Does this mean you tend to publish according to the personal tastes of your team rather than for a variety of markets?
Emma: It started off that way, yes. Now we’ve been going for a few years, we are refining it down. But it’s still personal taste driven. Horror, for instance, and sci-fi are my personal favourites.
There are two of us, and our tastes converge rather nicely around horror, sci fi, and then some non fiction…Lots of cycling books next year! And werewolves! ha!
Me: You publish a lot of non-fiction in very specific areas: craft, martial arts and cycling. Is that personal-interest-lead?
Emma: The fitness thing came about, god knows how as I am not a sporty type, but I box, and there were no books on the market that I wanted to read, to refine my boxing. Hence… Boxing Fitness, our second bestseller.
[Note: Snowbooks’ first bestseller, Adept by Robert Finn, sold 50,000 copies in the UK.]
Me: So would you see it more as subject-based than demographics and markets? Cycling and martial arts and craft rather than “for thirty-somethings” “for sixty-somethings” kind of thing?
Emma: Yes. I really don’t think you can successfully – or at least honestly – publish based on market research. It has to be from insights. Insights into the community – what they want, what they need. And the only way to really do that properly is to be of the community.
With Boxing Fitness, by publishing from within the community, it was easy to see what people needed – plus we made it look a million times more attractive than any other boxing books. Boxers have aesthetic values too!
Me: Do you think that is where mainstream publishing goes wrong?
Emma: I think mainstream publishing goes wrong because they have 150 years of tradition to contend with.
Our advantage comes from the fact that we’re not in meetings all day – we’re just getting on and doing whatever comes into our minds! No sign off procedures, no bosses, no sub contractors!
Me: As a company you seem to be very forward-looking in your use of new media – you have a strong blog presence and even opened a bookstore in second life. How important is new media and how do you see the trade moving in terms of internet and print-on-demand?
Emma: Being online is crucial, obviously. I spend most of my time online, and I thank my lucky stars I’m living in an age where there is a global information repository. Asimov gets another one in the bag!
However, there are a large number of people who still don’t have broadband and so it’s important not to get too obsessed with it. Second life is really only good for getting column inches, not for engaging with readers – YET.
Me: I read a piece you wrote recently about the waste of pulping. I keep imagining that selling through the internet and print-on-demand will become more standard, but perhaps that’s wrong.
Emma: Thing is, my model is a volume model. Amazon’s is, but in a different way. I want to sell a million copies of 50 or so books. Amazon want to sell a couple of copies of 50 million or so books. There is a disconnect there.
Print on demand doesn’t work for me, because I need the volume. A print on demand copy costs, say, £4.00. A litho-printed copy costs £0.50. So the maths doesn’t work for a small list. If I had a list of 250 titles and only wanted to sell a few of each it’d be fine.
Me: One of the things I am interested in, speaking to other writers, is how books go out of print so fast. You have said elsewhere that you don’t have the money for advances – can your authors expect to make money through royalties and do their books stay available? Or are you no different from a larger publisher on that issue?
Emma: We have yet to put any books out of print (actually, there was one, thinking about it) and we’ve been going since 2003. But that’s not because we’re special – we are just bloody-minded and I refuse to give up on anything.
But only one of our authors has made a living wage from being published.
Me: It seems to me that a lot of larger publishers are quick to put stuff out of print which is very depressing for the authors.
Emma: In those situations, I don’t see why a book can’t be made print on demand.
The publisher has gone to the trouble of investing in the IP – why not continue to exploit it?
But it’s not going to result in a load of money for the author. If a b format trade fiction paperback is print on demand, a large publisher will spend, oh, no money on its marketing, so it will sell about 3 copies a year. As an author, I might rather have the rights back. Instead of print on demand, I think self-publishing, particularly of fiction, will become more important.
As online tools become more useable, and online marketing strategies become the norm, I’m not sure that fiction publishers have that much to offer. Especially if they’re only going to manage to sell 2000 copies in the first place, which is the average. Ooh, there’s a deer in my garden!
Me: Oh Lovely! Tell me about Snowbooks covers – They are very well-known, aren’t they?
Emma: Heh! I think so…The cover reflects the GENRE, not the book. Readers need visual clues so that when they look at one of our books on the 3 for 2 tables, they immediately, subconsciously, know what they’re looking at – Horror, versus Historical Fiction.
Me: You have said the reader does not look to see who the publisher is.
Emma: Yes, absolutely. You don’t go into store looking for the latest Transworld, do you?
Me: Though you might for a small poetry publisher I suppose.
Emma: Or maybe the latest Hesperus. But not for trade fiction.
Me: Last question: can you sum up the advantages of Snowbooks over bigger publishers for both writers and readers…?
Emma: Advantages for writers: it’s more that they have to make the decision about what they want. Big advance or personal touch? Big showy author tour and parties which don’t actually affect sales or a focus on the things which are going to get their book into the right place at the right time?
And for readers, they should know that the books we choose to publish are the absolute best we have ever read. We publish so few, we are ultra picky. Coupled with that project management approach we discussed, it means the book in your hands is a piece of our hearts.
(She adds): Not literally. Gah – too much time thinking about zombies!
Me: Thank you, Emma. That is terrific.
Emma: Thanks so much for asking me – it’s been fun.
For more information on Snowbooks check out their website at www.snowbooks.com and watch out for upcoming reviews from our Bookfoxes of some of their titles.