An Interview With Matthew Smith

Good morning folks, I’m delighted to welcome publisher Matthew Smith to my blog. Here, he answers my questions as to how he got into publishing, his ideal submission and how he met a die hard Rod Stewart fan.

Over to you Matthew.

1) Did you always plan to publish books when you left school? 

Originally I wanted to be a journalist (for magazines, not newspapers) and secured a graduate placing, but the company went bust just as I graduated! I always loved books so ended up working for Waterstones as a bookseller, before applying to start at the VERY bottom with publishers. I eventually got a job as an editorial assistant at Routledge in 1993.

2) Did you have any other career plans?

I once harboured ambitions as a teenager to join the RAF. It lasted about 3 days I think, though now my dream would be to combine Urbane’s publishing output with running our own independent bookshop as well.

3) How did you become involved the publishing industry? 

I think I must have sent out over 200 speculative letters to publishers throughout the UK, and eventually I got to the top of a slush pile and secured an interview. My experience as a bookseller meant that I probably had more commercial knowledge of the industry than the editors interviewing me!  In the early 90s we used to see about 40 reps a month and every store made its own buying decisions, so you became very astute about what books worked and why and market trends. I’d had lunch with the Routledge rep the day before my interview so I was well-prepared to answer questions on the list (and even knew the nicknames of the two people interviewing me!)

4) What inspired you to start up Urbane Publications? 

The publishing industry has become more challenging and competitive than ever before over the last 15 years, and the last ten in particular. Amazon’s rise, the closure of many bookshops, the apparent growing risk-averse nature of publishers and retailers, these are just some of the factors that have impacted on how we commission, publish and sell books. Meanwhile thousands of authors continue to write wonderful books and readers still want to have fantastic, compelling stories, yet as publishers we seemed to forget some of these joyous fundamentals, focusing instead on slashing costs, rehashing the same writers and trends and moaning about Amazon (this is a sweeping statement obviously!). I started Urbane with the hope of giving more debut authors a chance to get their words out there, with the hope they would grow with us – and to continually build an audience of readers who became Urbane advocates, who relished the chance to read new voices and support authors they helped establish. Even after four years it’s still early days, but I genuinely think Urbane is growing into one of the most exciting independent publishers in the UK. Though I would say that wouldn’t !? 😉

5) What advice would you give to authors looking to submit their work? 

To take the time to put together a thoughtful and well thought-out submission package. So many writers finish their novel and then just send it far and wide on spec without the slightest bit of research into who they’re sending the book to, where the market is, who would read it any why etc etc. As a writer if you want a publisher to invest time, expertise and money in your work, and ultimately a reader to invest their hard earned cash in buying and then reading it, you should at least take the time to consider WHY they should. Writing a novel is a tremendous achievement, but that in itself isn’t enough to secure a contract – take the time to put together a good synopsis and target the right agents/publishers to consider your work, showing you have a commercial awareness of your likely audience. You’ll already be steps ahead of most of the competition.

6) More importantly, what do you look for in a covering email?

Interest, passion, energy and commercial awareness. It’s like applying for a job – the first people rejected are those that just send an email saying Dear Sir, I’m interested in the role, my CV is attached, many thanks. Show some passion for your work, knowledge of the market, and interest in the publisher that you’re asking to invest in you as an author.

7) Is there something in any genre that you haven’t seen or read about previously that you think ‘I could see that in a book’? 

Oh gosh, that happens every day! Many say we just constantly reinvent the same stories, which may be true to some extent, but it’s the innovative finessing of those stories where the magic happens. No obvious examples spring to mind, but I often find myself taking snippets of a day and storing them for future use – perhaps even I’ll write!

8) What is your guilty pleasure genre or book? 

I don’t publish fantasy, but when I’m looking for some joyful escapism I very often turn to a David Gemmell or Joe Abercrombie. And like many readers I have my literary characters and authors I can always rely on to thrill me – such as Charlie Parker (the great character created by John Connolly) or any Stephen King novel. And I can often be found rereading early Christopher Fowler novels, or a Susan Hill ghost story. And favourite classics include Dickens (I do live in Rochester after all which is very much Dickens country) and the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

9) What was the last book you purchased and did you enjoy it? 

My last purchase was An Ice-Cream War by William Boyd – not a new title but I had read some of his other novels and was intrigued by the WW1 setting and the two locations – East Africa and England. It was a fascinating but also entertaining read, and Boyd is wonderful in developing the various foibles of his lead characters.

10) Completely random – Do you like Rod Stewart and if so, do you have a favourite song of his? 

I’m not a huge fan, certainly as a solo artist, though that may be more to do with getting stuck on a flight to New York once next to a rabid Rod Stewart fan. My choice would be a Faces track – Cindy Incidentally.

Thanks for your time, Matthew. And for answering my questions and for featuring on my blog.

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