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As an independent publisher of commercial fiction, what gives Severn House an edge over its competition?
Our raison d’etre is to publish established authors who are no longer being published by the bigger publishing houses, perhaps because their mass-market sales are no longer holding up, but who can demonstrate a loyal readership, solid hardcover sales track record and some positive review coverage behind them.
We’re also interested in publishing established authors who are still being published by one of the big publishers, but who are keen to experiment in some way, perhaps by writing in a different genre. In the USA, for example, Severn House punches well above our weight in terms of both the sales and review coverage we secure; so for British authors wanting to write a second series that will appeal to the American market, it’s this transatlantic exposure that gives us an edge over our competitors.
You’ve had an extremely successful career. Which character traits would you say are necessary to be successful in this profession?
A highly-developed sense of humour is a must in this industry, along with confidence in your own editorial acumen, the ability to infect others with your personal editorial enthusiasm and persuade cynical sales & marketing colleagues of the uniquely brilliant qualities of a particular book. It’s also important to be open-minded, receptive to new ideas, and able to connect with people from all different types of backgrounds. Trade publishing is an incredibly social industry, and one of the aspects I enjoy most about the job is meeting potential authors who come from all walks of life, and who often have the most fascinating day-jobs and life experiences to share.
What has been the proudest moment of your career to date?
It’s impossible to choose just one! The top three would have to be the first time one of my titles reached the Sunday Times Top Ten bestseller list, the first time I had an author selected as a Richard & Judy Pick, and the first time I won a hotly- contested publisher auction for a promising debut author.
What aims and ambitions do you have for Severn House?
I’d like to see Severn House continue to adapt to the changing market, ensuring that we attract top quality authors to the list, and publish their books to the best of our ability. eBooks and the advent of print-on-demand ensure that our titles have a wider reach than ever, so I would like to see us explore every opportunity to fully exploit the ‘discoverability’ of our books. As a long-term aim I would like to see us find ways to do more business with the general trade, that being Waterstones and WHSmith in the UK; Barnes & Noble in the US.
What advantages come from being at an independent hardcover publisher?
We are a small but highly focused team, assisted by a number of longstanding, regular freelancers around the world, which means we can be very flexible and allows us to adapt quickly to changing market conditions.
Another strength is the quality of our editorial care. We aim to give our authors the individual, in-depth editorial feedback and attention that the larger publishing houses often don’t have the time to devote to midlist authors. Authors also appreciate the family atmosphere at Severn House – even the receptionist who answers the phone knows exactly who they are. It’s that kind of personal touch that is so important, I think.
What are the biggest challenges that you face at Severn House?
The ever-declining library budgets are of course a major challenge. Obviously we have no control over government spending, so we have to ensure that we can adapt other areas of the business, such as our eBook list for example.
Also, the abolishment of the Net Book Agreement almost twenty years ago now and the subsequent disappearance of all those high street bookshop chains – Ottakars, Borders, Books Etc, Dillons – means that the big publishing houses have drastically cut their midlist publishing over the years. For an author, this means that to a large extent it’s all or nothing on your debut novel: authors are no longer given a chance to build and grow from modest beginnings.
If they’re not a brand name, it’s harder for authors to build up a loyal and devoted readership: these are the kind of authors who are the lifeblood of Severn House, and they are becoming an increasingly rare breed. There is a substantial readership for just those kinds of books, if publishers would only give authors a chance.
What are you looking for from authors?
The authors we value most are those who meet their delivery deadlines; produce excellently-crafted novels at regular intervals and those who provide us with plenty of extra content which we can use to market their novel. Also, those authors who make good use of social media to reach out to their readers and build up their fanbase online.
How has Severn House changed since you joined in 2011?
When I joined, our sales were divided approximately 50/50 between Britain and America. Now, admittedly with the ongoing UK library budget cuts, but more significantly with the growth of eBooks it’s closer to 30/70 UK/US, so we are extremely focused on the American market.
Our eBook list has grown exponentially since I first joined, and last year Amazon overtook the US library supplier, Baker & Taylor, to become our biggest customer. The growth in online sales means that we are just as concerned about how a cover image will look as a thumbnail sketch on a website as how a traditional hardcover print edition will look on a library shelf.
Also, since 2012, technological advances mean that small reprint runs of hardcover/trade paperbacks and print-on- demand are far more cost effective than they used to be. This means that none of our titles need go out of print, as used to be the case. This is a major advantage for a publisher like us, who do not publish mass-market editions.
What do you look for in an accountant?
Sound, practical, honest advice. A ‘glass half full’ approach: a positive attitude to solving seemingly intractable problems.
What is the most important financial lesson you’ve learnt?
Everything in moderation – don’t spend what you can’t afford or at least can’t afford to repay within a relatively short space of time. As far as acquiring new titles is concerned, it’s OK to take a punt, but don’t over-spend those costings! As a small independent publisher, we can’t afford to absorb loss-making books as part of the bigger overall picture. For example, about 85% of our authors earn out their advances and receive royalties on top; this is certainly not something I can say of the publishers I worked for previously. We take the view that every book should cover its direct cost and contribute some margin: this means not paying excessive advances, and getting the initial hardcover print run as accurate as possible.