The BookBrunch Interview: Nick Wells, Flame Tree Publishing

Tim Relf
News - Interviews Friday, 17 August 2018

Flame Tree Publishing is about to launch a new fiction imprint. The firm’s founder, Nick Wells, tells Tim Relf why

Greetings cards provide a useful insight into consumer-buying practices, according to Nick Wells.

"People make a spur-of-the-moment decision when they walk past cards and that’s a very salutary lesson if you’re in book publishing. It helps you remember that if a book doesn’t look good, no one’s going to pick it up, however well-written it is inside."

The importance of 'look and feel' is a topic Wells returns to time and time again – and it’s a key element of the new imprint, Flame Tree Press. With its 'award-winning authors and original voices', the feel of the books themselves is essential to their appeal.

Publishing horror, supernatural, crime and mystery thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, it will mark the first major foray into fiction for a business that has until now focused on art, music and lifestyle – producing mainly illustrated books, calendars and notebooks.

The venture represents an "evolution" of its curated short story collections, about 20 volumes of which have been published since 2014. Set around such themes as ‘Chilling Ghosts’, ‘Time Travel’ and ‘Agents & Spies’ each has included about 20 classic and new stories – the product of submission rounds which have attracted large numbers of entries from around the world.

"This means we’ve dealt with thousands of people who are very enthusiastic about – and active in – the genre they love. They’re part of a community who we talk to all the time. We’re part of that community. Online, we’re constantly talking with bloggers, reviewers, readers, writers and other publishers. It became clear there was an opportunity to step into new novels and it seemed logical because this is an area we are passionate about."

The new imprint, which has a base in New York with executive editor Don D’Auria, as well as the firm’s Fulham HQ in London, will publish its first six titles in September, seven in October and November, with 24 planned for next year and 40 for 2020.

According to Wells, the huge interest in these genres has been driven by "the march of Netflix and streaming TV." No longer, he says, do families gather around a single screen to share a Saturday night experience – instead there are often four or five screens in every household, on which three or four people might be watching completely different things at different times.

"This has shaped a completely different interest base. Horror and sci-fi used to be a bit frowned upon, like the comic books of the 1960s and 70s, but the advent of series such as Stranger Things, The Walking Dead and Buffy has meant such ideas have moved towards the mainstream.

"It you look at the top 20 grossing movies of all time, most are sci-fi or fantasy-orientated. The Shape of Water [an adult fairy tale about a fish-man] would not have become an Oscar-winning best picture were it not for this interest."

Breaking China
Wells reckons the new imprint could fairly quickly come to represent a quarter of the business. "As well as being a global community, it’s very much a global market," he says. China, too, has huge potential and he’s currently exploring opportunities there, across the whole list.

"Science fiction is very much an emerging phenomenon there, so it’s fascinating to create alliances and be a modest part of it. Of course, this is vastly time-consuming – not least because the culture of business and social engagement is so different."

Whether it’s going into new markets or experimenting with new formats, publishers have to keep changing and inventing things, he believes. The last 20 years have been "a period of accelerated change" and nowhere has this been more apparent than when it comes to bookshops.

"In my working lifetime we’ve seen a massive culling of booksellers and it staggers me how inventive and hardworking the booksellers who have survived are. In this tough market they’re up against the convenience mentality that we all enjoy by being able to order or view online with such instant ease. Go to any bookshop now, though, and the covers you’ll see are incredible because we all – booksellers, publishers, authors – have to work so hard to gain even a little bit of our consumers’ attention."

This preoccupation with how an item looks and feels – later to reveal the brilliant content within – might, he says, be a reflection of his background, which includes a spell as marketing director for reference and dictionaries at Harper Collins. Indeed, he launched Flame Tree Publishing in 1992 while he was still there; turning it into a full-time endeavour when he left Harper Collins in 1995.

"During the day I was doing sales, marketing and management, but I’m also a writer, painter and musician – so that’s what I was going home to do. I wanted to find a way of combining the career with the person. My original objective was to combine my creative side with my business side.

It's not about the money
"I care about having enough money to pay our bills, but money is not my main motivator. I want to make good things which connect with people. Publishing can be enormously democratising in the same way the internet can be. It’s about making and connecting.

"I would rather sell 50,000 copies at a cheaper price than 10,000 copies at a higher price," he says. "I’d rather more people read and enjoy something that’s really good than try to keep it to ourselves."

There’s something of the William Morris philosophy in this approach, he reckons. "I want to make things that are appropriate and useful and that people value for the purpose for which they’re intended – but to give people a little bit more than they think they want. You can have a debate about where Apple are right now, but as a business they’ve got this right over the years – they’ve tried to reach as many people as possible while delivering the very best quality.

"We like to make something that looks good and that makes people pick it up or use it, but in the end when you look at it again, whether that’s next week or in five years’ time, it’s still delivering because the content is excellent.

"We try to build quality and integrity into everything we do. I’m on a 25-year mission to create beautiful products that bring value and enrichment to a wide range of users and readers, online, in retail or mobile.

"We’re trying to create working formats wherever our audience exists so I’m interested in what, say, Tencent are doing in China or how Flipkart are growing in India.

"The interest in the subject or the genre is the common factor, but the hardest thing – and all the complexity – comes with making sure you meet the needs of everybody wherever they happen to be," he says.

"We’re lucky that we don’t work in a sector where the territory rights are important because readers buy and read across all territories in a very modern way. And they are very device-aware – our audience is incredibly internet-savvy."

While the bottom line might not be his sole preoccupation, cashflow is a perennial worry. "Any relatively small publisher would say the same. Perhaps the mistake some make, though, is they think that going into just e-books is the way forward. There’s something about creating print and e-books together which gives you much more scale, answers more of people’s needs, but obviously it’s much more expensive."

Rapid growth
Flame Tree, which Wells runs jointly with managing director Frances Bodiam, turned over £5.6m in the year to the end of June, marking a 20% rise on the previous 12 months which, in turn, was up 20% of the previous year. The firm, which employs around 18 people full-time in its head office, is 39% owned by John Holloran and Ross Clayton.

The firm’s recent growth has been helped, he suggests, by its focus on a more homogenous list. "We’re publishing more things that we really believe in and are more passionate about more often than before. We make more long-term decisions as well. Perhaps in the past we’ve been too responsive to what someone wanted 'now now now' rather than looking at trends. We look at trends and data much more."

Crunching the numbers is a task that he clearly relishes. "A lot of publishing is like that – problem-solving, relentlessly optimising. It’s about asking yourself: What’s the price point? Who is the audience? What’s the right format? Where’s the authenticity in the thing you’re creating? I like trying to find solutions. I’m very competitive with myself, very dogged. I love a challenge."

It’s just as well, perhaps, Wells has a strong work ethic. "I have to force myself to go upstairs to sleep – there’s always so much to do. It’s a vocation, not work; it’s a way of life. Most publisher-owners would say the same."

* Graduated from the University of Kent in 1982 with a degree English and American Literature
* Had a spell at the Spanish publisher, Anaya
* Writes sci- fi fantasy as Jake Jackson
* Written about 40 practical music books
* Has a 24-year old son and 16-year-old daughter

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