Event Recap / First Friday Club with Joel Naoum

For this month’s First Friday Club, our Program Officer Ashley Kalagian-Blunt spoke to Joel Naoum of Critical Mass, a consulting business for authors and publishers.

Considering indie publishing? Online: Self-Publish Your Book with Joel Naoum offers professional guidance.

For this month’s First Friday Club, our Program Officer Ashley Kalagian-Blunt spoke to Joel Naoum of Critical Mass, a consulting business for authors and publishers. Prior to Critical Mass, Joel ran Momentum, the digital-first imprint for publishing house Pan Macmillan. At Momentum, Joel oversaw all stages of the publication process, from contract negotiation and editorial changes through to marketing and sales. In 2011 he was the recipient of the Unwin Fellowship, which allowed him to research digital experimentation in the publishing industry.

With over ten years’ experience in the publishing industry, Joel is well versed in both the traditional publishing model and the emerging market for self-publishing. Our intern Ren Arcamone sat in to bring you the highlights of the discussion.

The Life of a Publisher

Joel has always loved books. He first became interested in publishing, he says, at a writers’ festival. Surrounded by writers like Garth Nix, Matt Reilly and Andy Griffiths, he nonetheless found himself more interested in talking to publishers. The possibility of a career in publishing dawned on him.

So. Why publishing?

‘Well,’ Joel says, he was grabbed by the idea of ‘swanning around at writers’ festivals.’

‘And was it like that?’ Ashley asks.

‘No,’ says Joel, laughing.

But it’s a career that suits him, he’s found. Though he loved reading from a young age, Joel was uninterested in writing books himself. His mother is an author, he explains, and Joel realised early on that a writer’s life could often be quiet and isolated.  A self-described ‘people person’, Joel enjoys the fast-paced and social nature of his job.

Momentum, a Digital-First

Joel started work as an editorial assistant, working his way up to junior editor, then editor, and eventually launched Momentum, the digital arm of Pan Macmillan. After the 2011 demise of REDGroup Retail, the umbrella company that owned Angus & Robertson and Borders, the publishing landscape shifted. ‘There was a fear that local emerging authors were not going to have the room to be published,’ says Joel, noting that over the past decade, traditional publishing houses have tended to publish fewer and fewer first-time writers. ‘There was a push for digital to create a hothouse for emerging writers,’ Joel says. ‘Momentum was originally set up to discover the next big thing.’

In its early days, Momentum published a range of books across all genres, but it soon became apparent that genre fiction was the market to target. Readers who seek out genre fiction are more likely to read their books online or using an e-reader. This is especially true of romance genre readers, who, even when reading paperbacks, are happy to exchange or otherwise get rid of their books when they’re done. By now, Joel says, ‘the whole romance industry is digital.’

Although Momentum had originally hoped to transition new writers from digital to print, the aims of the company shifted to focus solely on the digital market.

Momentum distinguished itself by offering high-quality editing for its authors, but unfortunately, the costs associated with editing proved unsustainable. ‘It’s not a lucrative business,’ muses Joel. Momentum closed its doors in early 2016.

Digital Publishing: What Sells and What Doesn’t

In 2011, Joel successfully applied for the Unwin Fellowship, which allowed him to spend three months with various publishing groups in the UK, researching digital publishing experimentation. This gave him a great deal of insight into the world of digital publishing at an interesting time, when e-readers were still hard to come by and many publishers only sold print.

Interactive fiction was one area Joel was eager to study, although he found there was little future in it. ‘I don’t think it’s part of the core reading experience,’ Joel says. Though it exists on the fringes of digital publishing, interactive fiction often has more in common with gaming, using sound, images and user-based decisions to direct how the reader experiences the text. Moreover, ‘there’s not a lot of room for playing with experimental digital fiction when there’s not a lot of commercial interest in it.’

There is room for a certain kind of digital mixed media in publishing, but it needs to enhance the usual experience of reading. Linking audio with e-books, as Amazon is currently doing, is one way for digital publishing to create an engaging experience for readers. The interactive edition of  T.S Eliot’s The Wasteland, released on an app and produced through a partnership of Faber & Faber and Touch Press, is a fantastic example of this.

Self-Publishing: How To Get It Right

In the world of traditional publishing, the author has someone to guide her through the process: the publisher. ‘The publisher is the person who helps you make better decisions,’ Joel says. That person can be a real asset to the author in ways that aren’t always obvious at the outset. ‘There are so many weird technical things you need to know,’ he says. As a result, the most successful self-publishers are those who know how to outsource.

Critical Mass, Joel’s consulting agency, performs this role for their author clients. Here are a few of the questions he puts to prospective self-publishers:

  • Is there a market out there for you? If you know it’s out there, but it’s not something you can access via traditional publishing methods, maybe self-publishing is the right approach.
  • Is your book well suited to digital? If it’s genre fiction, especially science fiction, fantasy, or romance, you’re in the right place. Parochial Australian fiction, on the other hand, often sells poorly.
  • Can you market yourself well? ‘You need an authentic personality behind the Twitter account to market effectively,’ says Joel.
  • What are your goals? If your book is suited to digital and has a clear, already-engaged market, then self-publishing might give you an income. Or perhaps your book is only intended to be read by your family and future generations, and you’re not interested in turning a profit. Self-publishing can be a great approach, but you need to be clear about your goals and realistic in your expectations.

Authors may have a range of reasons for turning to self-publishing, and the outcomes vary from person to person. ‘It’s not a cookie cutter experience,’ Joel says. ‘It’s a different experience for every author.’

Joel Naoum will bring his insight and experience to Writing NSW’s online Self-Publishing Program, a 12-week course that begins in September. Click here to find out more information.

You can also find out more about Critical Mass, or follow Joel on Twitter @joelnaoum

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