Endeavour Press claims to be the UK’s leading digital publisher, and with 800 titles contracted in the last year alone, turnover of £1.75m in 2015, 2016 sales of over 1.5 million books, and 130 titles in the top 100 Kindle chart on Amazon UK across 2015, the claim is easy to believe. As the publisher reaches its fifth birthday, founders Richard Foreman and Matthew Lynn (pictured, in tie) discuss the secrets to success, and why they have moved into print.
Endeavour Press began life in February 2012. Foreman was a freelance author publicist and consultant, and Lynn was one of his clients, a thriller writer and financial journalist. In summer 2011, Lynn was doing a series for Headline and decided he wanted to create a spin-off ebook novella for the Kindle market. Although ebooks were just taking off, Headline did not see the commercial potential in short digital fiction, so Lynn decided to do it himself. The novella sold very well, and it occurred to Lynn and Foreman that there might be a gap in the market.
"We began with the idea of just doing short books," Lynn explains, "but what we stumbled across very quickly was that it was actually a much bigger space than we originally envisaged. What we particularly came across was the power of backlist."
At the time, only a limited number of titles from major publishers were available in ebook format, and in 80-90% of cases the rights had reverted to the estates. "The publishers let them go because they saw no real value to them," Lynn says. However, as Endeavour went on to prove, the value could be great.
"The backlists were deeper and stronger than the publishers imagined," says Foreman. "Partly because there were actually few people at the publishers who had an institutional knowledge of what was published 20 years-plus ago." Endeavour took advantage of this. Even now, although it commissions new works, most of what Endeavour publishes is backlist from big publishers: it releases some 25 books a week, two or three of them from debut authors.
"Whether we're dealing with the estates or living writers, authors who have five or more books are where the great assets lie," says Foreman. "The royalty cheques are bigger for them, just because they have more books. We learned to be a prolific publisher, because no matter how much we publish, we can't break the Amazon computer." It's a bit like finding a new band, says Foreman, and if they've got other albums out, you buy them. Some of the Endeavour authors have upwards of 200 books to their names.
"When you're handling estates like that, if you get one that sells through, there's another 200," says Lynn. "Like dominoes. It's about understanding the algorithm."
Graft, drudgery and Amazon algorithms
When Endeavour started, the Kindle Store was like "the Wild West for guerrilla publicity". Now, Lynn and Foreman suggest that they understand the digital market better than do most other publishers.
"We have a mantra here that there are no new or old books on Kindle," explains Lynn. "Most publishers think of the Kindle Store as a kind of bookshop. It's not. It's a platform, like YouTube. You don't need a relationship with YouTube to get your funny cat video to the top of the charts. You just need a really funny cat. In the Kindle Store, it's our job to get a book noticed, not Amazon's."
Though Lynn and Forman remain discreet about the direct approaches they take with their digital marketing, there clearly are some tricks of the trade. They use Amazon daily deals, but that makes up a tiny percentage of their list. Sometimes an author can kick-start a book, but that again is very rare. Some of their most successful Amazon authors don't even tweet. Traditional publicity, while great for selling physical books, doesn't really work for ebooks. Similarly, promoting alongside news stories and utilising their now rather strong mailing list can also help, but the real trick, Lynn explains, is constant re-promotion of the entire list, and when something works for one book, you just copy that process across the list.
"If you can break through enough, the Amazon algorithm kicks in and starts actively giving your book visibility," Foreman adds. "Then hopefully you get a nice spike of sales. That can last for a while, then you do it all again six months later. Fundamentally, it's a grind. It's graft and drudgery."
"It's about relentlessness," says Lynn. "In traditional publishing it's about what you sell in four months, whereas we're much more concerned about what we sell in five years. Traditional publishers criminally undersell their estates. They just don't exploit these assets. We've got 3,500 books on our list and every book's a new book every day. If you haven't read it, it's a new book to you."
What's more, with worldwide rights regularly up for grabs, particularly on estates, there is no limit to where Lynn and Foreman can take their business. Canada, Australia and the US have all been big markets for them. "Once we do all these ads and carpet bomb the internet, actually there's no fences,” says Foreman. "People will buy it all around the world."
"A big mistake many traditional publishers make is having a limited view of the market," adds Lynn, who finds the way rights territories are still divided up utterly baffling. "These publishers think in terms of the million people in the UK who regularly go to Waterstones and buy books, when actually it's a heck of a big world out there and everyone’s online! Publishing’s a conservative industry with a small 'c'. It sounds simple, but within publishing just not being conservative, being flexible and open to new ideas, is an incredible strength."
Counteracting the five year itch
Reaching their fifth year in business is "quite a big thing", says Foreman. "It didn't happen overnight, but we learned quickly and we learned well. We've been enormously lucky over the past five years with the growth of the Kindle market. Despite what the major publishers say, their ebook sales are dipping or plateauing off because they're contracting. The ebook industry - the part where it's independent publishers and self-publishers - is all going up! Kindle don't give out their figures, but five years ago to get into the top 50 of the Kindle Store, you probably needed to sell about 250 copies in a day. You probably need to sell about 400 now." In the US, Lynn estimates it's closer to 5,000 copies per day.
Yet, despite this success, Lynn and Foreman have had to find a way to counteract the inevitable five-year itch. "That's partly why we've reinvented ourselves a little bit by doing print books with Endeavour Ink."
"The Kindle Store hasn't replaced the physical book, and print's doing well again," says Lynn. "People are reading more. The market's stabilised. Some people still like to read print books and the customer's always right. We're not here to tell them what to do: if they want to buy a print version, we'll make a print version for them."
Both Lynn and Foreman come from bookish backgrounds, and Foreman is keen to emphasise that Endeavour Ink will be a "proper" print publisher. "As much as we look forward, we've got to look back as well," Foreman says.
"We'll still be upside down from what the traditional publishers are doing," says Lynn. "We're very keen that there's no point in us becoming a version of Hachette. The traditional publishers, they do ebooks, but they're effectively print publishers and they design a print list for the bookshops, then they put them in the Kindle store, whereas we're the other way round."
"The risk is lower trying to do this now," adds Foreman with a grin. "If we were to start up a print publisher straight away, we'd probably be sitting in a hostel somewhere right now telling you about how it all went wrong!"
The economics of ebooks are favourable, whereas print is "more chancey", says Lynn. "But the great thing about making a profit is that you can also take lots of risks."
Though Endeavour will once again turn to the midlist for the bulk of its sales, moving into print enables it to aim for a different kind of author. "A certain tranche of authors still want to be in print and now we can go after them, but importantly they can approach us as well," says Foreman. "Because we're paying advances and there's a lot of investment of time and money, we're being a bit more selective about who we're asking." The goal? To get a book in the Sunday Times top 10.
Looking ahead, Endeavour’s plans remain book-focused. "One of things we've always been keen on is that a book's a book," Lynn says. "100,000 words of well-crafted prose. What format it comes in is really of very little interest to anyone."
"In five years' time, I have absolutely no idea what could be happening," concludes Foreman. "Google could come into ebooks! But it would take a lot of time and money to knock Amazon off their shelf. They're on the reader's side, so the readers look after them."