Heart, Soul & Success: After Nyne Meets…Urbane Publications Founder Matthew Smith

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For the latest in After Nyne Meets our columnist Daniel David Gothard meets Matthew Smith, owner and founder of independent publisher Urbane Publications.

Matthew has commissioned, consulted on and published over 3,000 titles in a 25 year career, spanning titles and digital content in global trade, academic, education and business markets. He has been a Waterstones department manager, highly successful commissioning editor, packager, and director, in a career that has spanned both corporate (Pearson, Hodder Headline, Routledge) and leading independent (Arcturus, Kogan Page) publishing.

His reputation, and the reputation he promotes throughout the Urbane ethos, is founded on achieving shared goals, both creative and commercial, through proactive collaboration, and he genuinely believes that the author should play a dynamic role at the heart of the project, not simply be treated as a producer of content.

Matthew currently lives in Rochester (Dickens country!) with his wife and two children, as well as Tilly the Urbane dog, and Pepper, the slightly more Urbane cat. He still buys far too many books and will one day write a book about his grandfather.

Matthew, it’s great to talk to you for After Nyne. What inspires your work?

The time-honoured, and perhaps rather clichéd response is to say because I love books. But the truth is I do. Passionately. And I think that’s vitally important for Urbane to succeed. I rather suspect there are a few ‘publishers’ pumping out product these days that don’t love books at all, and that is a great shame.

And the writers. Because writing is actually really, really, really hard! And I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have the guts and the determination and the sheer talent to put words on a page. Don’t tell them I said that though, otherwise they’ll start feeling all superior.

What do you consider your greatest publishing achievement to date and why?

I tempted to answer the next book I publish. There’s still that indescribable thrill whenever a new title lands on my desk, and all that hard work and creative development that’s happened hand-in-hand with the author leads to a perfectly formed realisation of our collaborative efforts.

What’s your view on “Art for Art’s Sake”? Do you feel your work needs an audience to be ‘complete’?

Yes. Because if I publish a book and no-one reads it then I have failed the author and the author’s words, I have not done them justice. Is a book a book if it isn’t read? I don’t like the notion of words remaining undiscovered, I think they exist to be shared.

Do you work best alone or in a collaboration?

Strangely it’s a hard one to answer when you consider the whole raison d’etre for Urbane is to work collaboratively! Collaboration drives absolutely everything I do in publishing, from initial idea to finished book and beyond, collaborating with the author, designers, marketers, buyers, and, vitally, readers.

But much of my actual work is just me, working alone, honing ideas and scripts and publishing strategies, keeping the Urbane wheels turning. So, to give you the cheat’s answer I’d say both – that working alone effectively allows me to develop the best possible collaborations.

What best advice would you give to a budding author?

Simply this – don’t rush, be patient. You took weeks, months, sometimes years, to create your words. So why immediately throw your script onto kindle direct thinking the world will beat down Amazon’s firewalls to get at it? You put your blood, sweat and tears into your writing – make sure you put them same thought, heart and passion into ensuring you publish them the right way.

What are you working on at the moment?

Where do I begin! Three new titles launched this week and I’m trying to drive as much discoverability and profile for each of those books as possible. It helps that one of them is Steven Berkoff’s debut novel ‘Sod the bitches!’ – he doesn’t need any encouragement to provoke interest, intrigue and the odd moment of outrage!

There are also another 12 titles publishing before the summer, so I’m swimming gracefully through thousands of wonderful words at present, working closely with the authors on bringing their stories to life. It’s a hands-on role because that’s the way I insist on working – it’s what Urbane is driven by, that closeness and care for each and every project. It does mean lots of coffee and late nights though…..and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Who or what is your greatest influence and why?

It’s always the author. Because every new ‘story’ begins with them. That’s the reason I talk about the author being at the heart of every project that is developed at Urbane. It might seem a very obvious thing to say, but there wouldn’t be any Urbane books without the authors who write them. Every single time I sign a new writer I find myself energised, enthused and inspired by the promise in their writing and the immediate focus is ‘how can I share this with others?’

How have you suffered for your vocation?

A quick peek at my bank account will provide one answer! Joking aside, I don’t think I’ve ever suffered, that’s such a strong word. I was however definitely unhappy, frustrated and unfulfilled when I was working for other publishing companies, because I could see how the focus was on the bottom line to the detriment of everything that gives publishing its heart, soul and success.

Don’t get me wrong, success also means sales and sales mean revenue, and revenue means more books (and Urbane staying in business!). But there is a genuine sense that much of the industry has become so driven by the demands of sales channels, sticking to ‘what we know’, not embracing the opportunities offered by change but just criticising them (such as the growth of self-publishing or the dominance of Amazon), that it’s become incapable of innovating, creating, and taking risks.

Publishing should be about developing new voices, and delivering their words in as true a form as possible – I’ll suffer if I begin to try and artificially create and force feed readers what I think they want, instead of trusting those readers to discover the quality and thrill and authenticity that exists in every new book we produce. I want to publish the books authors want to write and readers want to read, and that’s honestly not as simple as it sounds. But it’s bloody good fun trying!