Monday, June 24, 2013

Q & A with Bookouture founder, Oliver Rhodes by Lindsay J. Pryor

I’m so excited to have Oliver Rhodes with us on the Hot Pink Typewriter today. When I tentatively asked if he’d give up some of his time to be quizzed mercilessly by me, I was thrilled when he actually said yes.

For those who don’t know, Oliver Rhodes is the founder of Bookouture. He spent 10 years at Harlequin UK, where he was Marketing Controller and was chosen as one of The Bookseller’s Rising Stars of 2012. He regularly appears on The Romance University to give guidance and advice to authors. He was part of the Harlequin team that won The Bookseller’s Digital Strategy of the year award in 2012. His incredibly successful New Voices online author talent search won M&B the Bookseller’s Marketing Campaign of the Year 2011. He helped quadruple sales of Harlequin’s MIRA commercial fiction imprint in 5 years and establish authors such as Diane Chamberlain, Alex Kava, Debbie Macomber, Erica Spindler, Pam Jenoff, Maria V Snyder, Rachel Vincent, Elizabeth Flock, Anne O’Brien and Victoria Fox. Deep breath. That’s pretty impressive. Oh and, of course, let’s not forget he brought Blackthorn to the masses (not that I’m biased or anything). But seriously, let’s get the insight into this awesome publisher and his extremely exciting new venture…

Q) You had a hugely successful career as the Marketing Controller for Harlequin  UK. Why did you decide to go into business for yourself?

A) I think I could write a book on the answer to that question! But I shall try to keep it succinct…

A lot of business opportunities start with a problem: 

Publishing isn’t just about editing and book covers. Yet I felt that for a lot of authors – both those within traditional publishers and digital publishers, that was all that they were being offered.

With millions of other books to compete with, I don’t think that approach works unless the author is excellent at self-promotion. It might work for publishers, who take on enough titles to ensure that they back some winners, but I didn’t feel that it added enough value to authors.

I had a vision of how I’d run a digital publisher if I were starting from scratch, without the constraints of working within a bigger publisher – and Bookouture grew from there.

I knew that if I didn’t take the opportunity to test that vision I would regret it.

Q) Why romance and women’s fiction?

A) Both because that is where my experience lies and because those readers are furthest ahead in terms of the shift to reading digitally – it just made perfect sense. 

Also, the romance genre in particular is really well served by a very active blogging community – which makes it easier for us to add value to an author in terms of getting publicity.

Q) You have a very eclectic range of authors in terms of the books you’ve chosen to publish – paranormal, Indian, humorous, contemporary, New Adult... was that always your intention?

A) My focus was solely on working with the authors who I thought had the most potential. Very broadly the aim is commercial fiction aimed at women – similar to the MIRA list that I helped build at Harlequin.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to go with such a range – these were simply the manuscripts that got me most excited.

Q)  You have an open brief when it comes to submissions. Why?

A) With the concept of bespoke publishing we simply don’t need our submissions to be all of the same genre, or word-count, because we’re marketing that author individually.

It’s also worth saying that when I was setting up Bookouture, I looked around at other publisher’s websites and submission guidelines. I found the tone and the number of ‘don’ts’ to be quite off-putting – almost as if they were trying to make it difficult for authors.

I wanted to keep the submission procedure for Bookouture simple, open and approachable.

Q) What’s unique about Bookouture (and what first attracted me) is that you fit your publishing around the author, as opposed to the other way around. Is that not a bit challenging?

A) To me, developing a bespoke approach to each author is essential if we’re to do the best job of publishing that we can. Applying a template cuts corners and I think creates a danger of not developing or selling effectively what is unique about that author’s voice or story. 

With so many more books available than ever before I think a bespoke approach is essential to stand out.

As for being challenging, I actually find the variety it involves to be what I like best about the job – and we published a wide range of fiction at Harlequin, so I’m also pretty used to it!

Q) Deciding which authors to sign must be a big thing for you. Your business depends on you making the right choices. How stressful is it making those decisions?

A) Saying no is hard. The part of my job that I like least is sending rejection e-mails, and there have been some talented authors that we’ve turned down. And there are always a few that I wonder whether I made the right call on.

Saying yes is easy. I haven’t yet found making a decision to actually sign an author difficult. In each case there has been something about the story or voice that has grabbed me.

When I get that feeling I have a strong vision for the book – I know what we can do in terms of positioning, cover design and promotion – and I start to get excited about the potential. 

Q) You’ve had a LOT of submissions, agented and unagented, debut authors as well as those who have sold tens of thousands of books. Do those kinds of credentials/lack of them affect your decision-making?

A) Essentially, there needs to be something there that makes me think that we could make a success of that book.

The most important thing is the quality of the manuscript – and other factors (or lack of them) don’t influence our decisions in a negative sense if a manuscript is great. I think you can see that from the fact that most of the authors that we’ve taken on so far have been debuts.

Having said that, factors such as an established sales history or author platform are definitely persuasive because they increase the chances of success.

Q)  What’s your thinking process as you’re reading a manuscript? Do you start making judgments early on? Do you wait until you’ve seen the story unfurl completely? Basically, is it true that editors/publishers decide within the first few paragraphs?

A) For me, it’s easy to decide if it’s an obvious ‘no’ within a few paragraphs. From there, basically the better something is, the further I will read. If I get a few chapters in and I think there is potential, I will send it to one of our Editors for a second opinion.

Q) A great story is one thing, but what other qualities or skills do you look for in your authors?

A) The writing really is absolutely the most important thing, and nothing else is required, other than perhaps openness to feedback.  As I say, things like influence on social media can have a positive impact, but not a negative one.

In terms of marketing, people often forget that the product (or story in this case) is the most important element. I always say that if you write a good book, you’ll be able to sell it – if you write a great book, readers will sell it for you.

Q) Can you summarise what makes an author ‘ideal’ to work with?

A) I’d never thought about that – and it’s a difficult question because every author is different and you form a working relationship that seeks to make the most of their strengths.

In terms of writing I think creativity, a focus on delivering what readers want and being open to feedback are the key things. Being able to write and revise quickly also helps!

Q)  You work with some of the best editorial, design and marketing professionals in the business. How do you match your designers/editors to your authors?

A) That’s a good question, and one I had to think about as most of the time I just ‘know’ by instinct.  Designers tend to have styles that can make them a good fit for certain genres or for a look that you’re hoping to achieve. In a way the same is true of editors but, because they’ll be working directly with the author, personality can come into it to.

Q) All of your authors speak extremely highly of you and are very open with their praise. How does that make you feel?

A) It’s very rewarding, and I really appreciate it. I take is as a sign that we must be doing something right!

Q)  You very much have your finger on the pulse. Some publishers are still slow to catch up with the eBook revolution. I know you offer print on demand books, but why do you have so much passion for eBooks?

A) Because they are the future. Because the model of publishing is so much more efficient and quicker.  Because pricing is much more fluid. Because publishing becomes more about marketing to consumers and less about influencing a supermarket to stock your book. Because promotions are much more measurable. Because reaching a global audience is easier than ever before. I could go on…

At the heart of it, eBooks simply offer a better deal to the reader in terms of price, convenience and choice. I think that’s a very exciting proposition to be working with.

Q) Authors are becoming increasingly more business savvy as to what might be the best deal for them and their work. Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the future of publishing? And for readers?

A) I actually did a post on a similar topic over at Romance University recently

I think it’s a great thing for both publishing and readers. It forces publishers to concentrate on adding value to authors and to justify exactly how they are going to do that. The good ones shouldn’t be afraid of that.

It’s also a pressure for publishers to continue to adapt to the adjusting digital landscape. There’s a quote from Mark Sanborn (a business guru) that I love – and that I think very much applies to publishing at the moment:

"Your success in life isn't based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business."

That’s another reason that I founded Bookouture, because I knew that I’d be able to innovate and learn quickly.

Q) What are your hopes for Bookouture? 

A) I want to carry on creating publishing that I’m proud of. I want to achieve what I think is possible in terms of sales with the authors that we have and to gradually add to our author base. 

We’re still just starting out so we need to be focused, but I want us to be a publisher that adapts, learns and flourishes. My aim is for us to be the best of the new generation of publishers.

You can find out more about Bookouture here or by viewing the trailer below:

Thanks so much again for joining us, Oliver! 


  1. Oliver, thanks for stopping by the blog. There's a lot of great insight and information here. It's always interesting to learn what goes on behind the scenes:) Cheers!

    1. Hi Olivia,
      Not at all - thanks for having me!

  2. Great Q&A Lindsay and Oliver!
    It's always exciting finding out who your next signing is because your authors chosen genre's are all so individual, just like your book covers.
    I wish you lots of success for the future.

  3. Wonderful Q&A! Thank you for the information you shared.

    It was all very interesting.

    And your video was excellent!

    1. Hi Jennifer - thank you, very much appreciated!

  4. Great interview Oliver, thanks so much for the insight. I've followed your posts on RU and gained loads of excellent information about marketing, in particular your advice about Goodreads has really helped me. Thank you!

    1. Really glad that you've found the posts useful! There's a few more over at too

  5. Wow, such great info! Thanks for sharing your time and expertise!

  6. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing such valuable information! Great interview and video! Wishing you much continued success.

  7. Such fabulous information. Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Thanks Tina - glad you found it interesting!

  8. Thank you for an insightful interview, Oliver! It's been exciting to watch Bookouture launch and evolve. I wish you and your authors the best of luck and much continued success.