Of all the independent publishers I’ve spoken to recently, Chris McVeigh of Fahrenheit Press stands out as one of the most outrageous. He won’t mind me saying that, I’m sure. “Indie Innovation” is about featuring smaller publishers that are doing things a bit differently, and when I heard about Fahrenheit Press’s mantra, it was clear that this publishing house was worth featuring.
McVeigh is certainly not the shy and retiring type, and his publishing house is out to make an impact. In its short life so far, Fahrenheit has persuaded Amazon to let it launch a book with no title, commissioned a rock band to write a song for a book (which was then written into the second edition), launched a fruitful ebook club, and successfully campaigned for a more equal proportion of published female crime writers.
These initiatives aren’t just gimmicks; they are backed up by a solid, growing business and a genuine wish to approach the market differently. After beginning life as a digital-only publisher, McVeigh will be launching Fahrenheit’s books as paperbacks at this year’s London Book Fair.
Fahrenheit Press aims to publish 50 books this year, up from the projected number of 24. A strong performance overall, that’s for sure.
I recently spoke to Fahrenheit Press’s driving force, Chris McVeigh, about how the publishing house operates, what kind of authors it takes on, and much more.
In a nutshell, could you tell DBW readers a little bit about what makes Fahrenheit Press tick, and how you got started?
I’ve been in publishing for 25 years and have worked inside the big corps and outside as a consultant. My consultancy firm, Four Fifty One, is still running without me. I largely stepped out of the industry about six or seven years ago after getting the opportunity to relocate to California and work for one of the big tech/media companies out on the coast. Things went well, I made a bit of cash and, for all intents, by last summer I was essentially retired. Years before, with my consultancy hat on, I had helped to launch Constable & Robinson’s ebook business back in 2011. We went from a standing start to build an ebook business turning over £3 million a year by the time it was sold to Hachette in 2014. At that time quite a lot of the old C&R authors were a bit pissed off by the changes and the way their marketing was being handled by the much more corporate Hachette. One of these was a mate of mine called James Craig. He’s a crime writer whose Inspector Carlyle series had sold around 400,000 copies.He had a new series on the go but he didn’t want to publish with them, though Hachette had made an offer for it. He took me out for lunch, got me a bit drunk and persuaded me to help him self-publish. That was pretty much that. The idea was we’d publish the new series, have some fun and split the cash down the middle. Fahrenheit grew out of that lunch.
James Craig has a big mouth and I started to get approached by more authors—established ones with decent sales histories behind them—who wanted in when they heard I was getting back into the business.
What do you differently to make an impact on such a competitive industry?
I was quite reluctant, but the truth is that retirement is boring. I decided that if I was going to do it at all I should do it properly but only if I could do it 100 percent on my own terms.
As well as publishing, I’ve always had one foot in the music business, and I’d always fancied running a publishing house on a record label model. Fahrenheit is the result. For sure, I’ve built it around the D2C and SEO concepts that my consultancy made its name with, but we’ve slapped a massive layer of rock-n-roll smoke and mirrors over the top to make us look distinctive. The truth is that underneath all the tattoos & motorcycles we’re ruthlessly commercial—so much so that we’ve been profitable from month two.
Standing out and being different is the key to engaging with consumers, but it’s got to be authentic or it’s impossible to keep up. I decided Fahrenheit should play to our strengths, so we’ve adopted a straight-talking, dangerous, rebellious, we’re-not-like-other-publishers stance. Essentially a tried-and-tested method in the music industry but one that is very unusual in the genteel world of London publishing. Obviously if we were just some Joe Schmo outfit with no idea what we’re doing, this approach would fall flat on its face quite quickly, but we get away with it because we’ve been around a bit and we really do know what we’re doing. Everyone in the industry knows my reputation for success and all we’ve really done is layer our whole punk ethos on top to make a great, commercially successful business: think Alan McGee at Creation or James Watt at Brewdog. We’ve stolen heavily from both those outfits.
You aim to put out 50 books this year, after only eight months of operation. How have you put out so many titles in such a short timeframe?
This has actually been a pivot point for us. My original plan was only to release one title (maybe two) per month and really market the hell out of each one. What we’ve realized is that the market has changed since I was last in the game and the Netflix-binge mentality has definitely taken hold with readers. Our focus now is to market the authors, not the individual titles. It takes as much effort for us to create a buzz for one book by an author as it does for five books by an author. This approach means that we can publish many more titles while still remaining true to our original ethos. You’ll see us doing more of this in the next year. For example, we’ve just published five books in one go from an author, we’re about to publish a group of seven from another and then at the end of April a group of 10 from another author. These type of authors have all been round the block a few times, had major publishing deals and have now taken back the rights to their books. That said, we’ll still be publishing individual titles from brand new authors if we think they’re a good fit with the Fahrenheit DNA. To underline this we’ve signed four contracts with four debut novelists in the last week alone.
How important is it to be creative and bold in marketing your books, and also yourself as a publisher?
Boldness and bravery are key to promotion, not so much with marketing. Knowing the difference between marketing and promotion is kind of key here and where a lot of publishers fall down.
Our marketing is boring stuff but done really well. We have an awesome tech set-up, great metadata, great customer data—we have a really rigorous SEO visibility strategy in place and our D2C marketing strategy is ruthlessly adhered to. We test, we amend, we improve, we test again. With our promotion, though, we let loose. It’s important to get as creative as you can. There is almost nothing we won’t do if we think it’ll make people sit up and pay attention. Our Twitter account is a reflection of this, which is why so many people engage with it.
We do all sorts of stuff and if it doesn’t work we hold our hands up publicly and make that part of the story. Too often, publishers pretend that everything is all lovely and successful and that they never make mistakes. We absolutely don’t do that. We’ve made sharing our failures part of our brand. One of the most successful promotions we did was unleashing Bookbot on the world. It went nuts on Twitter before people realized what was really going on. We’re pretty sure none of the big publishers would have gone anywhere near something like that, but it was fun while it lasted.
Anyway, yeah, promotion is where we have fun. We’ve got some really dumb-ass stunts set up for the London Book Fair. Pretty sure some of the big publishers are going to be pissed with us afterwards.
What have been your most rewarding moments since starting Fahrenheit?
There have been a lot of highlights. Giving debut authors the news that you’re going to publish them never gets old. Sometimes these guys have been waiting their whole lives for that moment. It can get pretty emotional. Seeing how much readers have bought into our subscription book club has been pretty rewarding, too. People have really bought into Fahrenheit and trust us with their hard cash to never publish a dud book. That’s been awesome. Most satisfying of all, though, has just been seeing it all working, collecting a really cool gang of authors and watching them connect with their readers and watching the readers connecting with each other, making friends, going out for beers. The “Fahrenhistas” wasn’t something we invented; the readers formed their own gang, and it’s going from strength to strength. That fills me with joy. You just can’t fake that stuff.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and overcome so far?
Honestly, not too many challenges along the way. I know that’s boring, but it’s true. This isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve got good people around us, and we only work with people who share our ethos. We keep everything as simple as we can. Our contract is less than a page long and basically just says, “We all promise not to be dicks.” If an author doesn’t want to sign something like that, then we move on. They’re not our kind of people; we wish them well but we don’t need them and we don’t want them. I can honestly say it’s the same with our readers. Either you get what we’re doing or you don’t. If you do, then welcome aboard. If you don’t, then it’s probably best you doddle off to Faber & Faber. We’re not the publishers you’re looking for. We’re in this to make money and have fun. if something starts being a ball-ache, we dump it and move on to something more interesting.
How do you see the emergence of digital? Is it a threat or an opportunity for publishers?
Fahrenheit wouldn’t exist without digital. I’ve been one of publishing’s loudest digital advocates since digital was invented. It’s how I made my reputation: my consultancy, Four Fifty One, took its name from Fahrenheit 451, which in turn was a reference to the temperature at which paper combusts. Fahrenheit Press is an extension of that brand. That said, from mid-April 2016 all our titles will be available as ebooks and print books.I reserve my strongest doses of spite and bile for publishers and publishing commentators who consistently talk down digital—does my head in.
Is your relationship with authors particularly important for Fahrenheit Press?
Our relationship with our authors is key. I know everyone says that, but we mean it. We only work with authors who share our ethos. I’d never work with an author I wouldn’t want to hang out with socially. We’re a gang. There’s not a single loser among them. Old pros and debut writers: they all help each other. They’ve all got each other’s backs. It’s only a matter of time before we all go out and get Fahrenheit tattoos. Actually, I’m already booked in for mine in time to show it off at the London Book Fair. So yeah, it’s all about the authors. Deciding who to take on is the most difficult part of the job. We’ve regularly passed on successful writers because I knew they wouldn’t fit in with our gang.
What tips, if any, would you give to startup publishers in today’s world?
Just do it. Technology has removed all the major barriers to starting a publishing house. Get yourself out there. Think big, talk big. Make it up as you go along. Switch things up if they don’t work; do more of what does work. Find an authentic, distinctive voice and do all you can to make it heard. Don’t be scared to break the rules. Trust yourself. Nobody knows how to run your publishing house better than you do. Being an indie means you don’t have to stick to the rules. Our strength is our ability to make agile decisions and pivot quickly.
And finally, what would you say startups should avoid at all costs?
The first and last and always of a new publisher should be to work their way into the hearts and minds of the punters who buy the books, not to appeal to the pundits in the trade press. I see so many indie presses spending time and money and effort trying to get a press release picked up by trade magazines and it makes me weep. Total waste of time. Spend your resources connecting with your customers, not with your industry peer group. In the end, success is always the best publicity. The time to sit back and get your ego stroked by the trade press is when your company is established and making some cash for yourself and your authors. Like we’re doing now.
A massive thanks to Chris McVeigh for giving me the lowdown on his approach to publishing. You can learn more about Fahrenheit Press on their website and follow on Twitter for the sweariest updates around. And if you’re at the 2016 London Book Fair, keep your eyes peeled and your ears to the ground.